Homeless advocates are criticizing efforts by BART police officers to enforce a no-sit policy implemented in two San Francisco BART stations since mid July as being too harsh.
According to BART, the strict enforcement campaign is designed to bring the stations into compliance with California law, which requires that stations be able to evacuate safely in four to six minutes.
People who lay or sleep in the station corridors are, according to BART police Lt. Tyrone Forte, a potential impediment to speedy evacuation. He said BART could be held negligent if an emergency were to occur and the exits were not accessible due to people sitting in the corridors.
According to BART, the first infraction is responded to with a verbal warning and a possible citation. The second infraction is met with another citation, but the third infraction includes a summons for a court appearance and potentially an arrest or fine.
Since BART’s enforcement campaign began on July 21, however, critics in San Francisco have called BART’s approach and tactics inhumane, citing a high arrest rate and an insufficient number of beds available in the city’s shelters to accommodate the homeless rousted by police.
BART police began enforcing the building code at the Powell BART station and expanded their efforts to the Civic Center station shortly thereafter.
Forte said the 30 people who have been arrested at the two stations were initially contacted regarding violation of the building code, but some were arrested for either refusing to leave the station, having outstanding warrants or other infractions.
He also said that the stricter enforcement has resulted in an increase in people seeking shelter inside the neighboring BART stations.
On Sept. 8, however, BART police will begin their enforcement of the no-sit violation at the Embarcadero BART station, with enforcement at Montgomery station to follow, Forte said.
Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness, is a fierce opponent of BART’s enforcement tactics and approach, calling the enforcement “harsh” as well as “a misapplication of the building code.”
She said that individuals take up a small section of the large underground corridors, and in the event of an emergency, they would be evacuated as well.
“If they aren’t harming anyone, they should be left alone,” Friedenbach said.
Friedenbach said that BART police do provide homeless individuals with information about the city’s shelter resources, many of which are at capacity most nights, or difficult to access without a phone.
One of the primary resources suggested to homeless individuals by BART police is the Homeless Outreach Team, known as the HOT team, which provides case management and services to homeless people who are on the street and not using other city homeless services.
However, HOT team case manager Angella David said today that the HOT team is not accepting new cases, hasn’t been for about two months and probably won’t accept new cases until December.
David said their caseworkers are at capacity and that the city’s shelters are full almost every night. She said there is some wiggle room for people in life-or-death situations, but otherwise there are limited shelter opportunities compared to the number of people in need of shelter.
Friedenbach said that there are fewer than 1,200 beds available in the shelters city-wide, and that many of those are occupied by people with 90-day long reservations, making it difficult to provide shelter for walk-in cases and those on the waitlist.
According to the 2013 Homeless Count, a biennial tally gathered by volunteers, the San Francisco Police Department and the HOT Team, gathered by canvassing the city to count homeless individuals, 6,436 people were identified as homeless in San Francisco, with more than half of those people living on the streets, according to the city’s Human Services Agency.
With roughly 3,400 individuals living on the city streets and only 1,200 shelter beds, critics argue that the roughly 2,200 people left without a warm place during the night should not be kicked out of public places that shelter them from the elements.
Hannah Albarazi, Bay City News