Public transit authorities in the U.S. are tasked with running clean, safe and efficient modes of transportation. Increasingly, however, they’re responsible for addressing a crisis they had no hand in creating: the rise of homelessness.
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Following the death of Jordan Neely, a man who was seen acting erratically and panhandling on the New York subway before a passenger choked him to death, it’s clear a conversation about transit and homelessness is badly needed in this country. An incredibly detailed investigation from Vice digs deep into the causes of unhoused people taking shelter in public transit and found only one regional transit agency, Philadelphia’s Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, providing resources and services for their homeless population. It’s a partnership between the city, SEPTA, and Project HOME called The Hub. It provides free breakfast, showers, laundry services and basic medical services to Philadelphia’s homeless:
Candice Player, Project HOME’s vice-president of outreach, told Motherboard during a recent visit to the Hub that the goal is to meet people where they are. If they just need a place to sit and do some laundry and have a shower, they can do that. If they want to meet a case worker or a licensed medical professional, they can do that too. Anyone can come, no questions asked. There are no metal detectors to walk through, no police or armed guards. Guests just need to check their bags at the door.
“The purpose of programs like the Hub of Hope is to provide a pathway into housing, but also to try to meet people’s immediate needs for food, clothing, and shelter,” Player said. “It’s to have a place to be where they’re not going to get kicked out.”
The Hub of Hope is an answer to an increasingly urgent question for American transit agencies: What should they do about rising rates of homelessness on their systems? The service it provides may sound like a common-sense and obvious part of a holistic solution. And yet, the Hub of Hope is a one-off. No other American transportation agency has anything like it.
So far the answer of making being poor illegal hasn’t really worked, though states continue to push harsher and harsher penalties on unhoused people. What should be done, however, requires a lot more than just transportation authorities are equipped to handle:
I found near-universal agreement that the old approach of relying on police-based enforcement—creating a code of conduct that bans specific things homeless people do in public, then arresting them for it—is losing favor. Instead, transit agencies have embraced a model of “partnerships” with existing city agencies and nonprofits that tackle homelessness, a move that sounds sensible on its face but is often used as another excuse to continue to invest little or no money in the problem.
All of this creates a conundrum for transit agencies used to the old way of doing things. As they see it, they’re trapped between the immediate demands of running a clean, safe, and effective transportation service and the causes of the homelessness crisis—a lack of affordable housing coupled with inadequate health care—over which they have no control, and they’re without the funding to grow promising efforts at a scale that would make a difference.
“In a perfect world, there would be a million of us,” said Holly Winge of CapMetro’s community intervention program in Austin, referring to outreach and case workers. “But even in that perfect world, where there’s a whole bunch of community intervention specialists, there’s not enough housing. So we can do the housing assessments, we can get people IDs. They’re still going to be waiting on their waiting lists.”
At Philly’s The Hub, homeless people are treated with dignity and given not only services but a place to stay during the day at least that won’t kick them out. Coffee and Sandwiches are naturally provided by Wawa. It’s a far cry from Los Angeles’ strategy of blasting ear splitting music to keep unhoused people moving. Or just forcing them to park on the side of the road in leaky RVs, like in Marin County, California.
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