How we work with the unhoused on our system

It’s been called the shame of Los Angeles. It’s the proverbial elephant in the room. It’s perhaps the biggest societal challenge we face today. And if you live or work in Los Angeles County, it’s impossible to ignore it –– more of our neighbors are experiencing homelessness than any other moment in our history. In 2013, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) counted 39,463 unhoused people living in the county. By 2023, that number had climbed to over 75,518. A confluence of factors –– loss of income, high housing costs, substance abuse and untreated mental illness, as well as residual social and economic consequences associated with the COVID-19 pandemic –– have pushed this crisis to a tipping point. People are becoming unhoused faster than we can move them inside.  

If you ride Metro regularly, you’ve likely seen some of our unhoused neighbors sheltering on the system. After all, enclosed spaces such as buses, trains, and stations tend to be safer places to rest than sidewalks and parks. Unofficial estimates from our staff suggest that there are more than 1000 people sheltering on the system on any given night. (This estimate includes Metro property –– buses and trains were not included.)  It’s not an issue that’s specific to Metro, either. “Point in time” counts conducted by New York City MTA officials revealed 4,042 people sheltering on that system in 2023. Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) officials counted 363 people in 2023 (although the numbers vary from month to month depending on season and weather).   

We are a transportation agency, not a social services agency, but we can’t do our job –– that is, provide people with safe, reliable, and high-quality transportation –– without addressing this complex and pervading crisis.  

Here’s what we’re doing:   

The power of partnerships 

In 2017 the Metro Board of Directors decided to bring homeless outreach services onto the system. Since the Department of Health Services (DHS) already oversaw multidisciplinary outreach teams composed of specialists ranging from healthcare and substance-abuse counselors to formerly unhoused peers –– what we call “wraparound care” –– we decided to contract with them for direct access to the providers who perform this specific kind of work. In 2018, we announced our partnership with PATH (People Assisting the Homeless), which has been providing services for the unhoused since 1983. PATH launched on Metro with just one team. Before long, one team became three teams. By 2022, we had eight teams. The next year, we partnered with 5 other community groups, bringing the number of teams on the system to 16.  

Today, we fund 24 homeless outreach teams patrolling our 1,447-mile service area. You might have seen them –– they wear purple vests, the color of homelessness awareness, so they can be easily identified. Currently, 19 of these teams have been deployed on our system –– and the remaining ones are finalizing their staff recruitment. These multidisciplinary teams work in smaller, more approachable groups of twos and threes –– the goal is to create a shared language with the people they help, which is crucial to building trust. You can find our homeless outreach teams on duty at our rail stations, trains, and busways 24 hours a day Mondays through Fridays, and 7 a.m. through 3:30 p.m. on weekends. Each of the six contracted agencies focus on different areas of the system, where they have the strongest connections and resources.  

Where homeless outreach teams are deployed on our system

Today, we have 24 homeless outreach teams on our system.

How we help  

When our outreach teams encounter unhoused individuals on our system, they provide a number of different services. Our teams may provide them kits of essentials (such as socks, soap, and toothbrushes). They might provide meals and connect them with counselors and health providers. (Our Metro Ambassadors are trained to connect unhoused individuals with various resources, too.) Our outreach teams also offer to enroll unhoused riders into Los Angeles County’s Homeless Management Information System (HMIS). This technology, used by numerous LAHSA-funded agencies that work with the homeless throughout the city and county, lets us keep track of the unhoused people moving around the region by sharing information with other organizations. This way, we can better understand an individual’s full journey beyond our limited interactions on the transit system, allowing us to connect with other case managers to ensure continuity of care  

Most importantly, our outreach teams connect unhoused individuals to housing. Thanks to DHS, we have access to 25 interim housing beds reserved for homeless Metro riders, which we fill every night. They offer meals, showers, amenities like laundry and bike storage, and assistance finding permanent housing. Later this month, through LAHSA and the Los Angeles County Homeless Initiative (CEO-HI), we will add another 25 dedicated beds, which will be open 24 hours a day. And later this summer, we’ll add another 20 in the San Fernando Valley, bringing the total to 65.  

There’s still a lot of work to do, but our efforts are making a difference. From July 2023 (the beginning of this fiscal year) through April 2024, we have enrolled 4,540 people into HMIS. Of those people, we’ve placed 1,388 into interim housing and 313 into permanent housing, making 1,701 housing connections in total. Given that we set a goal of connecting 966 people to housing for the FY24 fiscal year (which ends on June 30), we knocked it out of the park, reaching 176% of our goal so far!  

Understanding what unhoused riders want and need 

We’re also doing a lot of research to understand our unhoused population better, so we can implement effective and compassionate ways to help them. Over the past two years, we’ve conducted surveys at our end-of-line stations (such as Union Station, APU/Citrus College station, Downtown Long Beach station, and North Hollywood station) in order to understand the needs of people sheltering there. Of those we surveyed, 75% ride to the end-of-line daily, and 80% use Metro as a shelter until service ends, suggesting that there simply aren’t enough services available in the late evening hours. The overwhelming majority of the people we surveyed said they would welcome being offered a hotel or motel voucher and food or clothing.  

Creating new opportunities through ‘Room to Work’ 

Last year, working closely with several agencies, we launched a new program that creates employment opportunities at Metro for people experiencing homelessness. Called ‘Room to Work,’ the program provides training, interview coaching, and expedited onboarding for part-time custodial positions here at Metro. We’ve had three cohorts so far, and we’ve had a lot of success retaining members. In fact, everyone in our last cohort graduated! We welcomed our fourth cohort last month, and, at 29 participants, it will be our biggest yet.  

Looking ahead 

When it comes to combating homelessness, we are in uncharted territory. We have irons in the fire, but the issues are complex and multifaceted –– Angelenos have never faced a crisis quite like this. And yet, there are so many reasons for hope. We’re incredibly encouraged by grit, resilience, and compassion shown by our hard-working outreach partners. Every day, we hear incredible stories about seeds planted, doors opened, and lives that have been completely transformed. Since 2018, we’ve connected 4,732 people to housing ––– and we will connect many more in the months ahead.  

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Categories: Transportation News

7 replies

  1. In addition to your social services, Metro policing has to be strict and needs to aggressively police the Metro system to send the word that loitering is not tolerated. The reason why Metro is in a mess today because the homeless know they can get away with violating rules with little consequences. Get strict Metro, enough is enough! Policing is a necessary fact in a society because without it chaos ensues. The Metro board can’t be afraid to be strict.

  2. I love all of this. I hope these programs continue to grow and thrive. It’ll make everyone in our community happier, healthier, and safer.

  3. That’s nice. Do you understand what your *housed* riders who actually pay to use the system want and need? Like maybe not being stuck on a train or bus with belligerent mentally ill people who don’t pay the fare openly doing drugs and threatening people? I’m sorry these people are homeless but letting them turn buses and trains into their homes is not a solution.

  4. Great…but stricter fare enforcement is needed. Also REAL enforcement of the code of conduct is needed too. Better fare gates should be looked into. I also think barriers that stop people from getting onto the tracks should be considered. The ones I saw in the Japan were great. In Seoul South Korea, they were even better. On a sidenote: i miss how respectful and quiet people are to each other on the trains in the those countries. I also do think Metro needs its own police force. Officers that know the system, the people who work within it and even regular riders. Officers that are allowed to enforce the laws and codes Metro has. Honestly I don’t know if even this will improve metro’s safety problems. I think the mentally ill and drug addicted will continue to ride on the trains until the city solves those two particular problems on the streets. fYI…Chicago is having just as terrible a time with the L.

    • Unhoused people should be treated with the same respect and processes as the housed. This includes enforcement of fare evasion violations.

  5. Truly appreciate the steps Metro is taking but is there a plan to add gates to ALL of the rail stations just like, well, pretty much every other system I’ve seen? (And what the heck was our rationale for that in the first place???) It seems a lot of the problems can be traced to unhoused or mentally ill people simply walking right onto the trains and riding them all day. Oh lordy have I witnessed things on the Expo (E) line . . .

    • Adding gates to ALL station will be logistically impossible at this point simply because of design of such station. You’ll have 2 way traffic trying to get into a one lane road. What do I mean by this. Many of the at grade stations are design with only a single ramp entrance and that’s it. That means one turnstile will have to handle traffic and and out. You’ll genuinely be upsetting actual paying customers who will be late or have to leave earlier just because of that extra traffic just to get into an island platform.

      What you’ll likely see going forward, with the exceptions of the Van Nuys Line, is stations designed with fare gates already implemented into the design, just like the regional connector as an example.

      “pretty much every other system I’ve seen?”

      Fun fact, there are even some rail stations in Japan (mainly in remote areas) that are both non-gated and unmanned. Actually there are a few railways that don’t even participate in the national IC system at all. So saying that every other system has it isn’t exactly correct.

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