Days before New York City’s mayor unveiled a plan in February to address the issue of homeless people sheltering on the subway, three police officers in San Francisco were hustling a homeless woman up a staircase at the Civic Center transit station.
The officers, members of the Bay Area Rapid Transit police department, had been called there by a man who said the woman was pelting him with sunflower seeds. After arriving, they ushered her away from riders and toward a gated-off corner.
Then, instead of issuing her a ticket or booting her immediately out of the transit system, they waited.
Minutes later, an outreach worker for the transit system arrived, along with a social worker. After some cajoling, the social worker handed the woman a mask and persuaded her to leave the station for a city-run center where she could get temporary shelter, a shower and other services.
The interaction — in which officers de-escalated a situation and then deferred to trained outreach workers — offers a model for the future that New York officials say they envision as they try to address the large numbers of unsheltered people in the subway system in part by part boosting the role of social workers and health professionals.
But it also illustrates the challenges for transit agencies like New York’s as they seek to address a seemingly intractable crisis that sits well outside the bounds of their missions. Though the members of the BART team appeared to have used a relatively humane touch to steer the woman out of the transit system, they were still limited in their ability to guide her to stable, affordable housing.
As Mayor Eric Adams looks to accelerate New York City’s continued recovery from the pandemic and address perceptions that it has grown unsafe, he has been particularly focused on street homelessness. His efforts have centered on clearing street encampments and the subways, then trying to point those who dwell there toward city shelters, although the majority of people have continued to decline placement offers because they view shelters as unsafe.
America’s transit systems — public spaces with long operating hours and enclosed spaces offering more safety than the streets — have long been de facto shelters for the nation’s homeless population. For much of that time, transit agencies have turned to the police to address complaints by penalizing and ejecting those taking refuge on trains, subways and buses.
But as homelessness has increased in recent years and conversations around inequity in policing have louder, transit leaders in cities throughout the nation are exploring solutions that minimize the role of armed officers and integrate social-services agencies.
“There’s an opportunity for agencies to rethink their approach to public safety,” said Chris Van Eyken, a program manager at TransitCenter, a research and advocacy group.
As part of that process, he added, many agencies have concluded that “if you have people struggling on your system, you’re going to make sure that they have a connection to the resources that they need.”
The urgency for new solutions has deepened during the coronavirus pandemic, which has worsened homelessness and left transit systems struggling to win back riders who fled.
By the end of March, public transit ridership nationwide had only reached an estimated 65 percent of prepandemic levels, according to the American Public Transportation Association, a lobbying group.
Advocates for homeless people and transit experts say the decline has laid bare a crisis that was more easily ignored when trains were packed and stations crowded. It has also, they said, contributed to some riders feeling more unsafe.
“There’s so many fewer riders that people feel vulnerable,” Mr. Van Eyken said. “Because they feel like they’re by themselves.”
Many transit agencies, including BART, Los Angeles’s Metro, the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority and the Philadelphia area’s Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, have accelerated efforts to build homeless outreach teams.
Philadelphia transit officials have also started providing services within their system, including a drop-in center housed in one of its busiest train stations.
In New York, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority said weekday subway ridership had rebounded to about 58 percent of what it was in 2019. Customer surveys conducted by the transit agency found that many respondents cited safety and cleanliness as reasons for staying away.
Mr. Adams’s plan deploys police officers and mental-health workers underground to remove people who shelter on the subway. He has said the focus is on connecting people to housing, health services and counseling, not on aggressive policing.
Many advocates are skeptical, arguing that Mr. Adams’s plan relies heavily on police intervention and enforcement of the subway’s code of conduct, which has rules targeting homeless people.
The mayor has directed 1,000 officers to more actively patrol the subway every day, while promising to add dozens of social workers to the 200 already engaged in subway outreach.
In the first month that his plan was in effect, police officers made 719 arrests, issued 6,828 summonses — the vast majority for fare evasion — and ejected 1,981 people from the transit system, though it is not clear how many of them were homeless.
In that same period, outreach teams spoke with about 650 people a day, on average, and placed slightly more than 300 in beds over the entire month, city officials said.
Officials have declined to say how many of those who were newly referred to shelters remain there, and the mayor has emphasized that his efforts will take time.
But the initial numbers appeared to bolster a chief criticism among advocates for homeless people across the country: that regardless of their approach, transit systems cannot address homelessness without providing better options than crowded group shelters that provide little privacy and can be unsafe.
“You need to be able to move people into housing and better shelters,” said Jennifer Friedenbach, the executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness in San Francisco. “If that stuff does not exist, then you’re basically kind of managing the issue. And that’s what I think most of the transportation systems are left with.”
Other cities have moved more quickly than New York to shift their efforts away from police officers, and their experiences offer lessons about the possible limitations of Mr. Adams’s plan.
In the San Francisco area, BART, which before the pandemic served more than 400,000 riders a day, is hoping to rezone land it owns to build housing. Its board has committed to making 35 percent of those new housing units affordable, and Daniel Cooperman, who oversees the system’s response to homelessness, said he hopes transit leaders can work with the counties they serve on housing policy.
In the short term, the system has created a “progressive policing bureau” that includes 20 crisis intervention specialists with social work backgrounds. The specialists work with officers to respond to incidents involving homeless people or those struggling with mental illness or substance abuse.
About 50 percent of calls to BART’s police department involve homeless individuals, Mr. Cooperman said. In the past, uniformed officers would be sent to clear them out of the system, but they were not connecting them to services. Inevitably, people would return.
“It’s not beneficial to keep shuttling people back and forth,” Mr. Cooperman said.
Jessica Brusky, 30, who has been homeless since losing her job four years ago, said she has had mostly smooth experiences with officers on BART trains who have woken her up she slept, but only to check to make sure she was responsive and knew where she was going.
Still, there have been times when some officers have kicked her off the train after waking her.
Ms. Friedenbach said she found BART’s shift toward a diminished police response encouraging. But she hoped it would move more toward treating “unhoused people as customers in need of support, rather than people creating problems for ‘actual’ customers.”
In Philadelphia, Suburban Station sits in the middle of SEPTA’s network of subways and commuter trains and has long been a gathering place for “hundreds of vulnerable people” daily, said the transit agency’s police chief, Thomas J. Nestel III.
In the past, SEPTA police officers would typically enter the station and chase homeless people out. People would return, and the cycle would repeat, Chief Nestel said.
In 2018, SEPTA — which before the pandemic averaged about a million trips per day across buses, subways, trolleys and regional rail — turned over an 11,000-square-foot space in a concourse below the station to Project HOME, a nonprofit that helps homeless people.
The group converted the space to a drop-in center that offers temporary shelter, medical services, access to restrooms and laundry and help finding housing.
Sister Mary Sculllion, Project HOME’s executive director, said that the center served as many as 200 people a day.
SEPTA’s leadership is considering expanding the program to other transit hubs. Chief Nestel is also working to hire more outreach workers — SEPTA currently has about 20, compared with a police force of about 260 officers.
Sister Sculllion said she applauded SEPTA’s approach, but noted that the transit police did not always have outreach workers with them.
“Do bad things happen? Yep, they do, periodically,” she said.
Workers also still struggle to find acceptable shelter for many who need it. And fewer than 50 percent of those contacted by outreach workers agree to accept services, Chief Nestel said.
Without changes to the shelter system or more housing, he added, “we don’t have an answer for the bigger group yet.”
Those solutions are in similarly short supply in New York, which unlike most other cities is required by a court order to provide emergency shelter to every homeless person.
New York’s sprawling subway has an additional hurdle: 24-hour service on virtually every line and 472 stations, making it difficult for outreach teams to cover the full system.
Officials acknowledge that the system’s size poses a challenge and that solutions tried elsewhere may not work as well in New York. But with the mayor’s plan in its early stages, they promise riders will soon see results.
“It’s going to take a little while,” Janno Lieber, the MTA’s chairman and chief, said at a recent news executive conference. “But I’m very optimism, in part because of the intense commitment that the mayor has made.”