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Officials Set to Help Homeless at BART Stations

by Seth Hemmelgarn

BART Director Bevan Dufty
BART Director Bevan Dufty  (Source:Rick Gerharter)

Officials in San Francisco are working to help homeless people and drug offenders while cleaning up several BART transit stations.

Beginning in October, a two-person Homeless Outreach Team will be dedicated to four downtown stations, "but the initial focus will be at Civic Center and Powell where we are most impacted," Tim Chan, BART's manager of planning, said in response to emailed questions.

HOT workers will engage with homeless people in the stations and connect them with resources. Besides helping homeless people, the goals also include assisting homeless people, addressing customer concerns, and improving cleanliness at the stations, said Chan, a gay man.

"Our stations are often reflections of the cities that we serve," he said. "The challenges faced by the city around homelessness and opiate addiction are evidenced in our stations. There are no easy fixes but we're trying new initiatives and developing partnerships to respond to customer and non-customer needs."

BART and the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, which operates Muni, are each providing $125,000 to pay for the two outreach workers, said Chan. He added that there will also be cross-training with BART and Muni frontline workers on how to support homeless people, HOT workers, "and each other."

The effort "will be ongoing," said Chan. "However, we will be tracking metrics to measure success and to make changes if necessary."

Gay BART director Bevan Dufty said in an interview that HOT workers had been prohibited from approaching people in the ticketing or platform areas, with the expectation that police would engage with people, call HOT workers, and bring people upstairs.

However, Dufty said, "It would never work. Most homeless people don't have great interactions with police officers."

Chan said the HOT effort is "part of a larger coordinated multi-prong strategy around safety and security."

Another part of that strategy is the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, which was implemented in August and is based on a model that was developed in Seattle. City officials and BART have been awarded a $5.9 million, 26-month state grant for the program, which includes interventions with repeat, low-level drug offenders, who are often struggling with homelessness, mental health, and other issues.

When someone agrees to take part in the program, they can get access to health care, drug treatment, and mental health services as an alternative to prosecution and jail.

Dufty said the effort would be focused on the Civic Center and 16th Street BART stations, as well as the surrounding blocks.

"The goal is to have 250 people come into the program," said Dufty.

The local LEAD program is co-chaired by Health Director Barbara Garcia, Police Chief William Scott, and District Attorney George Gasc-n.

In an email, Dr. Angelica Almeida, who works with the health departments' Forensic/Justice Involved Behavioral Health Services, said the agency's "excited" to be a partner in the program.

"Our goals for this program are to reduce recidivism for individuals with low-level drug charges in the catchment areas, improve the health and housing status of participants, and strengthen the collaboration across stakeholders," wrote Almeida.

Laura Thomas, interim state director for the California Drug Policy Alliance, who identifies as queer, said in an interview that LEAD gives San Francisco "an additional tool to help move people out of the criminal justice system and into social services." She said that, in Seattle, the program's "been very effective at reducing recidivism, reducing costs, and improving individual health outcomes."


Syringe Disposal

Another idea to help keep BART stations clean is to install disposal boxes where people can discard of their used needles. In April, the Bay Area Reporter reported that San Francisco officials were looking at some BART train stations as sites for the containers.

At the time, Eileen Loughran, a health program coordinator with the city's public health department, said that three BART stations initially identified as hot spots were Powell, Civic Center, and 16th and Mission.

Loughran hoped that the syringe boxes would be installed at the Mission and Powell stations "within a few months." The Powell station, which mostly serves commuters and tourists, was expected to be first.

But in response to emailed questions this week, health department spokeswoman Rachael Kagan said, "There have not been any disposal boxes installed in BART stations to date. The closest one, at Bill Graham auditorium, is being assessed for its impact on the need for additional boxes in the Civic Center BART."

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