Of the most vexing challenges facing Metro, none is as difficult as the issue of the number of homeless using our system as shelter.
The frustration among our riders about the unhoused is palpable. Look at Metro’s social media streams on any given day. The feedback we get covers a wide range — from compassion to those who want us to kick the homeless off the system. In our most recent customer survey, rail riders listed homelessness as one of the top issues they want Metro to address.
Metro, in fact, has been working on a number of fronts for several years to address the issue of unhoused persons sheltering on our system — including everything from outreach to security. There are more specifics below. The fact that problems persist, we think, testifies to the size and complexity of the problem.
First, some context. Homelessness, of course, is a societal problem across the United States. In recent years, major cities on the West Coast have been hit especially hard, in part due to our mild climate, court rulings, and the dearth of affordable housing.
Southern California is the most populous region in the western U.S. and, not surprisingly, we’re regarded as ground zero for homelessness. Counts of the number of homeless individuals — to the degree that they are accurate — indicate that Los Angeles County alone has more than 69,000 homeless, a four percent increase from 2020.
We’ve tried to get a handle on the number of homeless on our system at any given time — but getting a number that we’re confident in has been elusive, in part because the Metro system is not included in Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority’s annual point-in-time homeless count.
On top of soaring housing costs and inflation, our region also suffers from a keen lack of supportive housing. That makes it even more difficult for people on the street to transition to long-term housing.
In other words, homelessness in our region is a vicious circle. We know that over the past few years there are far too many people, especially late at night and early in the morning, using our system as a place to sleep, to shelter, and to do other things that the housed have the privilege of doing in the privacy of their own homes.
This is a problem for Metro — first and foremost, we’re a transit agency. Our system is for helping people get around. Our stations and vehicles were not built to be used as shelters, nor are they safe for these uses. The bulk of our funding is used for the kind of things you’d expect: staffing and operating the nation’s second-busiest transit system with more than 2,200 buses, seven rail lines covering 100+ miles and maintaining stations, bus yards, rail yards and other key facilities.
This is exactly why we welcome a recent motion approved by the L.A. County Board of Supervisors that said the county will take a greater role in helping Metro deal with homelessness. That could mean the County taking over the outreach team efforts on our system. The County and Metro will also explore installing 24-hour-a-day ‘navigation hubs’ on our system to supply social services. We’re grateful for the County’s help as homelessness is an issue that transcends our system and city boundaries.
As mentioned above, we understand that there is a perception by some that Metro is doing nothing — we want to emphasize this is not the case. Our agency’s Board of Directors approved Metro’s first Homeless Outreach Plan in 2017 and that has since guided our efforts. Most agencies do not have such a plan.
Some of Metro’s key homelessness programs include:
•Homeless outreach teams that roam our transit system seven days a week. We contract for this work with PATH, a nonprofit established in 2017. PATH has teams deployed every weekday from 3 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. and from 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. on weekends. Over the past two fiscal years, the outreach teams helped 1,485 people attain interim housing and found permanent housing for 391 people. In that span, we helped almost 6,700 people.
•In May, Metro announced its partnership with the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health (LACDMH) for LACDMH to test comprehensive crisis response services to individuals experiencing mental health crises while onboard Metro vehicles or at Metro stations.
•Our budget funds three positions at Metro just to deal with homelessness issues — and these positions report to our CEO’s office — a sign of how seriously we’re taking the issue of homelessness on the system.
•Our joint development policy was updated by the Metro Board in 2021 to put a stronger emphasis on creating affordable housing. This is housing built by developers on Metro property (usually left over from construction of transit projects).
•This new staff report to the Metro Board has more details about what we’re doing for those who want greater detail.
Finally, we want to acknowledge there has been a lot of public discussion about Metro’s end-of-the-line service protocol lately — particularly in Long Beach, where all riders, including the unhoused, are required to deboard the train.
We want to add important context to this issue. Every night, at the end of the service, we ask all riders to leave trains before the trains return to our various rail yards for nightly cleaning and maintenance. This as common transit practice that we have done for many years for the safety of our employees and customers. Our rail yards are NOT safe places for riders to be spending the night.
The concern — and it’s a legitimate one — is that service for our rail lines ends between midnight and 1 a.m. and social service providers aren’t typically open during those hours. For this reason, the Metro Board approved a motion at its meeting last Thursday to determine how many unhoused people are getting off trains at night, boarding the following morning and what Metro may be able to do differently. Many members said it’s an urgent issue requiring cooperation between the county, local cities and Metro (you can watch/listen to a recording of the discussion here).
As our CEO Stephanie Wiggins has often said, we very much want everyone in our region to be comfortable taking the Metro system. We know that’s not the case as we try to rebuild ridership.
We do want you to know that we’re working hard to solve tough problems — and that we do not accept the status quo. Coordination between L.A. County and local cities with Metro is critical.
Let us know your thoughts and ideas in the comments section. We appreciate your feedback.