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Challenge For Cities: Reduce Police Role With Homeless in Subways

Photo Courtesy: The New York Times

Days before New York City Mayor Eric Adams issued a plan in February to deal with homeless people sheltering on the subway, three police officers in San Francisco hustled a homeless woman up a transit system staircase.

Bay Area Rapid Transit police officers had been called by a man who said the woman was pelting him with sunflower seeds. They ushered her away toward a gated-off corner. Instead of issuing her a ticket or booting her immediately out of the transit system, they for an outreach worker and a social worker, who persuaded the woman to leave for a city-run center where she could get temporary shelter and other services.

The case, in which officers de-escalated a situation and deferred to trained outreach workers, offers a model that New York officials envision as they address the large numbers of unsheltered people in the subway system in part by boosting the role of social workers and health professionals, the New York Times reports.

It also illustrates the challenges for transit agencies as they seek to address a seemingly intractable crisis. 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 Adams looks to accelerate New York City’s 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, sending those who dwell there toward city shelters, although most people have continued to decline placement offers because they view shelters as unsafe.

Transit systems, with long operating hours and enclosed spaces offering more safety than the streets, have long been de facto shelters for the nation’s homeless. Transit agencies have turned to the police to address complaints by penalizing and ejecting those taking refuge on trains, subways and buses.

As homelessness has increased and conversations around inequity in policing have grown louder, transit leaders throughout the nation are exploring solutions that minimize the role of armed officers and integrate social-services agencies.


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