Union Station’s Pilot Program Aimed at Moving the Homeless, But Does It Create Two Classes of Transit Rider?

Earlier this week, Metro announced a new “pilot program” to restrict access to the public seating area except for those holding passenger tickets to Metrolink or Amtrak trains that would be departing within the next two hours. The policy is aimed specifically at the homeless, many of whom sleep and rest in Union Station’s seating area, but impacts many groups of people including the homeless, people waiting for family and loved ones, and Metro passengers and customers.

“All this really comes down to this question: who does Union Station really serve?,” writes Ken Pratt, the director of Union Station Property Management at The Source. “Our customers were being accosted and couldn’t even use the restroom at times because people have been camping in there. We really are trying to do this on two fronts — not just enforcement, but with outreach to homeless in the area surrounding Union Station to bring people to services they need and services to individuals.”

Putting aside the issue of whether or not this is a good policy for Los Angeles’ homeless population, a topic which is well outside my wheel house; Pratt raises another question…who does Union Station really serve? How does a policy make sense that treats actual Metro passengers as second class citizens to those riding other rail services.

I understand that a Metro ticket is far less expensive than one for Metrolink or Amtrak, and that a TAP card with a single fare could be used as a “ticket to sit” if it were just restricted to people with valid fare. But, if the goal is to stop people from sleeping in the station what is stopping metro from just creating a policy that it’s against the rules to sleep in the station?

The level of controversy this policy creates will likely depend on how the policy is enforced. If the policy is little more than a Source article and some signage, there will likely be little difference. If security is regularly removing people who they profile as homeless while people that appear more likely to be passengers are allowed to stay, it will likely also be less controversial than it could be.

However, if instead of private security Los Angeles Sheriff Department is checking tickets and they regularly focus on everyone, then the outcry will probably be louder. Since this is a pilot program, it will be interesting to see if it becomes a permanent one.

Metro notes that over the summer, in excess of 135 people were sleeping in Union Station each night. While the number has dropped somewhat, the building does not have the facilities to accommodate that many overnight guests. Metro tried bringing in homeless intervention specialists during the summer, with little impact.

For many people, Union Station is their first taste of Los Angeles. It’s going to send a strange message when one of the first thing a visitor experiences is being shooed out of what appears to be a public seating area.

 We’re actively looking for someone whose ticket is checked at a Union Station seating area. Drop me a line at damien@streetsblog.org. We’d love to hear from you.