In innovative approach, BART outreach focuses on moving homeless people into services


In innovative approach, BART outreach focuses on moving homeless people into services

Armando Sandoval talks with a community memberArmando Sandoval (left)  talks with a community member who advocates for helping the homeless population around the 24th St./Mission BART Station Plaza to access services and move into housing.

BART Senior Web Producer

The man leaned against the wall of Powell Station, in ragged clothes, his worn-out shoes behind his head for a pillow.

"Are you doing alright?" Armando Sandoval asked. A nod in reply provided the quiet understanding that the man was, indeed, OK. "Do you need any help?" He shook his head no. He was a regular, one of the many homeless people who look for a safe haven to rest in BART stations, most noticeably those in downtown San Francisco.

There is a delicate balance in dealing with this population, and Sandoval was hired by BART to tread that fine line. His official title is Crisis Intervention Training Coordinator and Community Outreach Liaison, and BART is one of only a few transit agencies in the nation to have a position completely dedicated to such training and outreach, the innovative idea of BART Police Chief Kenton Rainey.

“When I came to BART, I was looking for something proactive that we could do, before problems happened,” Rainey said. “It made a lot of sense to have someone who could train our officers in de-escalating confrontation, and who could work directly with the homeless population, many of whom have issues including mental illness or addiction, where special training is needed.”

Spend any time with Sandoval and you are going to hear the words "perspective," "point of view," and "complex" a lot. He understands that BART riders expect and deserve a safe, clean environment in their stations; they should not have to step over people sleeping on stairs, smell the stench of elevators used as urinals, or worry for their safety. From one perspective, a rider might say, "throw them all out."

From another perspective, it may be that no laws are being broken, that Sandoval is very, very close to getting a homeless person into a shelter; or to go to a mental health clinic or drug treatment program; and maybe, just maybe, turn their life around where they have better options for society than sitting in a BART station or plaza.


"There are success stories," said Sandoval, who was hired by BART in a fulltime staff position last year after serving in a consulting capacity since 2012. Previously, Sandoval had worked in the fields of homeless outreach, mental health and addiction recovery for nearly 30 years. Many on the streets are veterans of military service; they are all someone's son or daughter, and it is hard, repetitive work to reach many of them.                                                       

"It may be there are some people who are just born to do this work," he said. "For me, it is a calling." - Armando Sandoval

He is not a police officer, although he works within the police structure.  His purpose is two-fold -- to help clean up the stations, yes, but also to connect these people when possible with the service providers who may change their lives.

BART Police Sgt. Michael Williamson, who is based in the downtown San Francisco zone, calls Sandoval "incredibly valuable. I believe it's easier for persons who are homeless to speak to Armando, because in most people's minds, the (police) uniform means enforcement - they don't get to see us as peace officers."

man waits with belongings
A man waits with his belongings, resting, at 24th Street/Mission BART Plaza. 

Williamson explained that in most cases, a homeless person just passing time in a BART station or plaza, sitting on their own without blocking a throughway or aggressively panhandling, is not committing a crime. Sleeping, as opposed to sitting up alert, is not allowed, however, because under building code regulations BART must be able to quickly evacuate the station in an emergency and a person in a deep sleep or passed out poses a problem for the safety of themselves and others.


"We are a public facility and unless someone is violating the law, we walk by and check on their welfare," he explained. "If they are blocking free movement we will ask them politely to gather up their belongings and move along. We have to balance the needs of the patrons with the rights of our transient population."

There are a couple of ways that riders who are concerned about the presence of homeless people in BART stations can help, he explained:

* If a person appears sleeping or unconscious and you are worried for their welfare, use the white emergency phone in the station, contact the station agent or call BART Police at 510-464-7000 to come and do a welfare check. 


Rider Tip: Program your phone to call BART Police at 510-464-7000


"It is likely to be more successful going forward with a prosecution if there is a victim," Williamson said, and many people just don't want to get involved. Also, minor violations are almost always handled where the person is ticketed and put right back on the street. That's where the approach using Sandoval is different, and innovative.
* If you witness a person committing a violation -- such as harassing you, aggressively panhandling, littering, smoking, drinking alcohol, urinating in public, or blocking your way -- call 911 for emergencies or BART Police to file a complaint. Remember that your time may be needed to stay behind and give the report, or even to appear in court later.

What if you could take a holistic strategy aimed at proactively preventing such problems, rather than taking piecemeal approaches in an imperfect system to deal with them after they occur? That’s exactly what Sandoval’s position is intended to do.
Sandoval spreads his time between the counties that make up BART and sometimes starts at 4 a.m., to interact with the homeless population at one of their most active times. He explains that after being up at night, many look for a safe place to rest in the daytime where they will not themselves be victimized.

For many, there is shame, Sandoval says, and they may be too proud to accept his offers to help them find a bed or a clinic. This is a sea of humanity, but a highly complex and mixed population with different needs. It's his job to figure it out.

Should a person go on BART's 40/40 list? This is a new tactic employed by BART Police, in which the 40 transients who generate the most calls for service in Beat 40, the downtown San Francisco BART Police beat, are identified on a list. The focus if services aren't appropriate is to use powers like the new law creating prohibition orders or to make arrests. When someone comes off the 40 list, another name is added -- just one of the ways BART is trying to clean up the system.
"I believe that in the last year we moved something like 22 people off the 40/40 list," Williamson said. "And the next 22 names go on the list. It might not sound like a lot, but any person we can take off that list, that's a success story."

There is something of a revolving-door nature to the penal system, and offenders know it. With the complexity of BART's multi-county, multi-jurisdictional system, an offender may be back on the streets the next day even when there is an outstanding warrant. Even with one of the highest incarceration rates in the world, our jails cannot hold everyone, and in many places mental health and homeless services have been reduced due to budget cuts. In addition, in cities like San Francisco that have enacted "sit-lie" ordinances aimed at preventing homeless people from hanging out on city streets, they may be pushed down into stations.

mattress lying by street

A mattress is on the San Francisco City property side of the alley, and at night gets dragged to the BART plaza side, illustrating some of the jurisdictional challenges.

It comes down to this:

* Some of this population are violent, breaking laws, and need to go into the justice system. In those cases, Sandoval works with BART Police to get them out of BART and into incarceration. When the public is willing to step up and help, these efforts are more successful.
* Some of this population are mentally ill and need health services. The "5150" hold can be used for some, who are a danger to themselves or others, and who can be committed for a short time for evaluation. They may be back on the streets in 48 hours.
* Some of this population want help; some do not. Sandoval works by treating each person as an individual, with dignity, and his smile widens when he talks about the people who have made it out, on their own, now living productive lives. "I'm Armando and I work for BART," he will say. "How are things going for you today?" He shakes their hand, gives a fist bump or a pat on the shoulder, and has a sincerity that shows he really cares. For those who believe that many are "homeless by choice," he points out, "mental illness is not a choice."

Chief Rainey takes a hard line, however, for those who have been offered services and refused, even after being evaluated and treated on a mental health hold to be stabilized where they can make sound decisions. “Let’s get real,” he said. “We are going the extra mile by trying to connect them to community service providers that can treat their condition. We are being proactive and want to help them to get help, but at some point they have to choose to accept it.” Shelter rules against drinking, smoking or drug use keep some on the streets, he said.
Rainey is passionate about the importance of providing Crisis Intervention Training for BART Police and community service officers, which is the other part of Sandoval’s job. “I’ve been involved in CIT for 15-plus years, and it works,” Rainey said. Asked about statistics or proof of its value, he asks rhetorically, “What if even one life is saved because of this training? What is the value of a life? This is very, very important.” He credited the BART Board of Directors for realizing the importance and allocating funding in the PD's budget to train all officers in crisis intervention and to hire Sandoval on staff. 

Don Jackson, a BART PD community service officer for downtown San Francisco, said the CIT training really opened his eyes. "Things we see every day, we realized we weren't REALLY seeing, until we went through the class," he said. One specific tip he learned, he said, was to listen for keywords -- a reference to a mother, or a pet, or a long-ago love, may provide an opening point to draw a person into a lucid conversation. Another reference may set them off. "You have to really listen a lot," he said.

On a walkalong with Sandoval through the stations we saw apparently homeless people of all ages, races and conditions. There are young people who appear to be of college age charging their phones and computers at station outlets, with their backpacks of belongings and a sign asking for money (not illegal in itself). There are frail, elderly people, with bare feet, matted hair, missing teeth. There are the well-dressed.


And there are those like the man whose name is Booker, who longtime staff say has been standing in the Powell BART Station nearly every day since it opened --  40 years of standing. He does not generally ask for help, drink alcohol, sleep on the ground, hurt anyone, or break any rules. Mostly, he just stands.

"Good morning sir. Why do you do this?," the tagalong asks him. "Isn't it uncomfortable for you? Do you have somewhere else to go?" Sandoval and Jackson have heard all the versions of his story, and there are many. Today, the story is that he is waiting for a backpack, taken 40 years ago, and when the person who took his backpack brings it back to him, he will leave. Today, he stands and waits. 
Another man at 24th Street is a more promising contact for Sandoval. He is on a list for housing. "How's it going. You moving up the list?" Sandoval asks. "Yeah, I think so," the man says. Another man stops him to ask about progress in getting rid of a mattress that's been dragged around for people to sleep on at night. Sandoval knows almost every person he speaks to by name. He's found a place where all his years of work in different fields can come together.
"In this job I can build on all my perspectives of how systems work," he said.
Williamson added: "If we can get help for the people who want it, and it may take several contacts, we will have less calls for service and it reduces the chance that offenders are going to reoffend," Williamson said. "The more people we can help, the safer it is for our riders, our employees and our officers. The better it is for everyone."
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