Transit Providers Working to Assist Unsheltered Individuals Across Their Systems

  • Author: Edward Graham
  • Date: February 23, 2022
LAX Station, Green Line, LA Metro System by Ken Lund

Across the country, transit providers in rural states and urban settings alike have been working to provide targeted support and assistance to unsheltered individuals across their services. 

With more than 500,000 individuals experiencing homelessness every day, and many shelters and social service providers unable to fully meet the needs of this growing population, unsheltered individuals have increasingly turned to public transportation for shelter. And transit systems have struggled to address homelessness across their services, with studies finding that many providers have responded to unhoused individuals through criminalization and policing. 

For too long, transit providers have lacked the necessary resources to properly assist these unhoused individuals. A 2018 study conducted by the American Public Transportation Association found that only five percent of surveyed transit operators had resources allocated for homeless outreach efforts. 

Over the past several years, however, transit agencies across the U.S. have begun to recognize the importance of assisting unhoused individuals—as well as other at-risk individuals—on their services through the use of more targeted support personnel with the social services skills needed to support these individuals. During the coronavirus pandemic, transit providers have been working to take a more active role in supporting unsheltered individuals utilizing their services, allowing them to form successful partnerships with local nonprofits and state officials. 

Serving homeless individuals during the pandemic

Since the start of the pandemic, the Vermont Public Transportation Association (VPTA)—whose members include all eight of the state’s transit providers—has been working with the Vermont Department of Health (VDH) to address the health and safety concerns of riders. The partnership with the state’s health department has enabled VPTA to provide free transit to those seeking rides to vaccine appointments, assist with scheduling mobile specimen collections (like bloodwork or COVID-19 tests) for homebound individuals, and craft questionnaires to address the transportation needs of those booking rides. 

One of the key benefits of this collaboration, however, has been a more directed focus on the needs of those experiencing homelessness across the Green Mountain State. Elaine Haytko, VPTA’s executive director, said the association has been working with VDH since the start of the pandemic “to move folks who were in temporary housing into hotels and shuttled them along with their belongings.”

With fewer riders utilizing public transit services at the start of the pandemic, VPTA and its member providers were able to provide VDH with the public transit resources needed to transport those experiencing homelessness. But public transit was not a feasible solution for transporting individuals who either contracted COVID or were at risk of infection, so state ambulance services–which had seen a decrease in use with people opting out of elective medical procedures–were used to transport those experiencing homelessness to isolation facilities before they arrived at non-congregate housing shelters. 

Bill Clark, a representative from VDH who has been involved with the ongoing efforts to transport and assist those experiencing homelessness during the pandemic, said that pandemic-related funding received from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has enabled them to fund their ongoing transportation efforts. 

“​​We’re trying to pull in more resources so we’re not transporting people who are a covid infection risk using ambulances,” Clark said, citing the increase in demand for ambulance services across the state as the pandemic has continued. “We still don’t want to put those individuals on public transportation, especially now that public transit is busy again, so that transition is something we’re dealing with now.”

As a result of the pandemic, public transit providers across Vermont have made their services free for riders through the end of June. Haytko said the hope is that this open access will extend beyond the mid-year cutoff, which would allow those who are chronically unhoused, currently experiencing homlessness, or housing insecure to maintain their mobility. 

We hope to see those funds come through to continue our rural service for free,” Haytko said. “We only have one urban system here, but potentially that will also be free, but we’ll have to see where the funds come from.”

By working to provide a range of services for those across the state–whether sheltered or unsheltered–VPTA and the health department have been able to tackle a number of the health and safety challenges that have arisen as a result of the pandemic. But the successful collaboration between transit providers and health officials in Vermont serves as a potential model for how to assist those experiencing homelessness, even after the pandemic has subsided. 

“If you want to serve this population, then you have to bring together the experts on public health, the experts on helping people experiencing homelessness, and the experts on transportation,” Clark said. “Those are the three levels of expertise you want to pull into the same room, and it works.”

Public transit providers working to assist those experiencing homelessness

Beyond providing transportation for individuals experiencing homelessness, public transit providers are working alongside local nonprofits and establishing their own homeless outreach initiatives to better engage with and assist those experiencing homelessness.

The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro) first connected with nonprofit homeless outreach provider People Assisting the Homeless (PATH) in 2017 to offer services and housing resources for those experiencing homelessness using their system. This partnership led to the creation of the PATH homeless outreach teams, which are deployed across the system to help connect unsheltered individuals with temporary or permanent housing solutions. 

Metro’s eight PATH outreach teams are made up of a staff of 40 formerly homeless individuals, social services workers, mental health professionals, and others who have the training and backgrounds needed to properly assist unsheltered individuals. That outreach includes providing water and meals, as well as connections to other resources like temporary shelters and addiction support.

Last year, Metro CEO Stephanie Wiggins announced that the PATH outreach teams, rather than armed police officers, would serve as the primary points of contact for engaging with homeless individuals across the system’s service area.

“We will address unhoused people on our system with compassion and dignity,” Wiggins said. “We will collaborate with our city and community partners and social services.”

Dave Sotero, Metro’s communications director, added that the system is pursuing other initiatives to support those experiencing homelessness across its service area, including funding an interim shelter to provide temporary housing for up to 80 people. And Metro is currently applying for $4.9 million in grant funding to provide additional opportunities for unsheltered individuals through an anticipated job program it’s hoping to launch.

“Metro knows that there is more work to be done, and that is why we are partnering with homeless service providers as we pursue a U.S. Economic Development Administration grant opportunity to create jobs for chronically and formerly unhoused individuals through our new ‘Room to Work’ program,” Sotero said. 

In order to better address the needs of all of their riders–including those experiencing homelessness or undergoing mental health crises–transit providers across the country are pivoting their outreach and safety approaches to focus on intervention and de-escalation. Over the last few years, providers in major cities have begun launching initiatives to introduce unarmed safety personnel with social services backgrounds into their systems to provide more direct assistance to these individuals. 

Often referred to as rider ambassadors, transit ambassadors, and crisis intervention specialists, these personnel have the training and knowledge needed to assist those experiencing homelessness. One transit provider in the midst of launching its own rider ambassador program is the Portland Streetcar in Oregon, which hopes the initiative will mitigate the need for armed police responses in non-emergency situations. 

​​Andrew Plambeck, Portland Streetcar’s public affairs manager, said that the streetcar system operates along a route with several homeless shelters and will at times have riders with no destination who need additional care and resources. He said that one of the hopes of the Rider Ambassador program, which is set to officially launch in the coming months, is that it will allow professionals with social services backgrounds to better serve this population, as well as other riders in need of assistance.

“We hope this program allows us to be an additional resource in our community so we can help make sure people are getting the care that they need.” Plambeck said. “I think there’s an opportunity for us to go above and beyond our transit operations to truly make a difference in the community–whether it’s by providing access to homeless shelters and addiction treatment, or access to health providers and social workers.”

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