As the county’s homelessness crisis continues to grow, agencies that have traditionally operated outside the social services field are being forced to realign their organizations and assume leadership roles normally reserved for large municipalities.
Metro, the county’s transportation agency, has moved to the front lines of the fight against homelessness with an expansion of outreach teams traveling on busses/trains and plans provide new shelters for homeless individuals who currently use transit as a form of temporary housing.
Metro originally approved $1.2 million to deploy City, County, Community (C3) teams on busses and trains in 2016. The organization recently approved a $4.9 million extension will keep the teams on Metro lines through May 2021.
Metro has since grown the number of its C3 homeless outreach teams from two to eight teams systemwide. These teams operate seven days a week on Metro Rail, Metro Buses and at Los Angeles Union Station. They help find temporary or permanent housing services for interested homeless individuals who have taken to Metro’s system and properties for alternative shelter.
“As a result of LA County’s Homeless Initiative, over the last 18 months more than 27,000 people have been placed in permanent homes, while tens of thousands of others have been set on a path from homelessness to housing,” said L.A. County Supervisor and Metro Board Chair Sheila Kuehl. “Metro has been part of this tremendous effort. Our contract with the Department of Health Services allows outreach workers to engage men and women experiencing homelessness on our buses and rail lines and link them to much-needed services.”
Since officially beginning an outreach pilot program in May 2017, Metro’s C3 teams have made significant progress, contacting nearly 4,800 homeless individuals. Nearly 1,200 of those individuals have been linked to permanent housing solutions, with a total of 88 homeless persons permanently housed.
“Metro is committed to operating a safe and high-quality environment for all our transit customers, but our commitment doesn’t stop there,” said Metro CEO Phillip A. Washington. “We are acting in a socially responsible and caring manner by connecting the homeless with critically needed services and resources that our county has to offer.”
Metro’s Manager of Special Projects, Jennifer Loew said the efforts are driven by economics and ethics.
She said Metro’s open user philosophy can be jarring to residents who are otherwise able to insulate themselves from the scope of the homelessness crisis.
“It’s really a microcosm of society at large,” she said. “People have a tendency, because people in cars able to experience the community in whatever fashion they chose, to not perceive the problem. When you get onto a transit agency or in a public space, that perception changes. Our ridership is confronted with the reality of Los Angeles County when they are on our system.”
That reality can be shocking for individuals who don’t grasp the severity of the homelessness crisis.
“Rooted in mobility is the ridership experience, that it be a positive experience, that people feel safe and (homelessness) goes to whether or not that rider experience is positive,” she said. “I think that sometimes what ends up happening is if a homeless person has valid fare or not, riders see a dramatic social issue and assume that Metro isn’t safe.”
She said anyone, regardless of housing, has a right to use Metro if they pay the fare but some riders are using the system for reasons other than transit. Metro trains and busses are safe, clean and provide shelter from the elements.
“It’s certainly safer than hanging out on skid row,” she said. “It’s clean, people are there to watch you. It has all these amazing qualities that are attractive and we understand that.”
She said that by providing access to services through the C3 teams, Metro is connecting homeless riders to organizations that can help them find permanent, secure housing that replicates the attractive qualities of a bus or train.
Metro has chosen to pursue a services strategy rather than some kind of enforcement option because Loew said it was the humane thing to do.
While the organization has effectively doubled its law enforcement operations since 2017, she said criminalizing people for being homeless does little to solve the problem and victimizes already vulnerable individuals.
“Our ridership matters to us and we would not be of good conscious to ignore the social complexity on our system … we can’t ignore it, you have to address it head on,” she said.
In addition to the expansion of outreach, Metro is also working with service providers to create new shelters that can be accessible 24-hours a day, just like the trains and busses.
“We are looking at employing a partnership with local homeless shelters and services to have a network that’s near transit,” she said.
Santa Monica’s Senior Adviser on homelessness, Alisa Orduna, said the Metro programs have an impact throughout the region, including in Santa Monica.
She said anytime someone is added to the County’s system, it makes it easier for other agencies to provide aid to that person because they will have access to their case details and the coordination can allow agencies in different geographies to find the best fit for the needs of the individual.
“There may be a person we see in the day that sleeps on the bus at night or is sleeping on the beach and riding the train in the day,” she said.
She said offering more services in more places ultimately keeps more people off the streets and by expanding help on the transit lines it can reduce the burden on cities who become the end points of a transit ride.
“It’s a good example of homelessness just being beyond local government responses or social service responses,” she said. “They are a transportation organization and an example of recognizing the crisis and need everyone to be on board.”
Locally, Santa Monica has C3 teams in addition to other outreach services. The C3 teams are geographically focused and reach out to any individual within their territory to provide aid such as resources on housing, basic medical help and a point of contact for other agencies that might have worked with that individual.
The City also has a Multidisciplinary Street Team (MST) and local law enforcement agencies have specialized homeless outreach teams.
The MST focuses on specific individuals that have been identified as heavy users of services such as ER trips or police intervention. The team provides deeper, repeated contact with less than 30 people to try to cater to their specific needs while transitioning them into the system.
SMPD’s Homeless Liaison Program team also connects homeless individuals with local service providers through proactive patrols and contacts with homeless individuals.
While Santa Monica’s Big Blue Bus doesn’t have a dedicated team patrolling its busses, bus drivers can contact the HLP, or its equivalent from another jurisdiction, when they feel it’s needed. Orduna said the city recently implemented a system to track how many BBB police incidents involved homelessness and found that only two percent were connected to a homeless individual.