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

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Image: ##http://hollywoodlocations.com/union-station-800-north-alameda-blvd-los-angeles-ca-90012/##Hollywood Locations##

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.
  • One rail fan who regularly comes to Union Station and hates both this policy and the one regarding access to the platforms asked me is Union Station just a rail station or is it also intended to be a community hub. Everything I have heard about the plans for the facility indicates there is a goal to support both. Obviously this policy was initiated without giving some thought to the practical implications.

  • Justin Nelson

    This is a new policy? I’ve had my ticket checked at the LAUS seating area many times. Honestly, probably more often than not. (Granted, I often pass through there with a laden travel pack and an I-didn’t-bring-a-razor-overseas beard…)

  • calwatch

    Actually MTA recently bought the property and so had to impose new rules and regulations. When it was owned by Catellus, they kind of did things ad hoc, generally letting people hang around during the day but cracking the whip and telling people to take a hike after dark.

  • John P

    There is no reason to be stranded at Union Station if you have a Metro pass. There is late night bus service (that’s annoying, but servicable) that runs most of the rail routes after the lines shutt down for the night. To be honest, if someone feels stranded after the lines close, I hope the people enforcing this policy could assist them in giving directions on how to head home.

    This policy is a non-issue during the day with a Metro ticket (there’s no Metro busses with headways over two hours, especially from Union Station).

  • davistrain

    Union Station is indeed a transportation hub these days (and I remember the 1970s, when it was sometimes called the “Alameda St. Mausoleum”). Regarding railfans (and I am one), we should remember that the trains at Union Station are run to transport people, not amuse the foamers. And if it is envisioned as a “community hub”, that does not include being a flophouse or hobo jungle.

  • Spokker

    In some ways Metro has to be a liberal, progressive, diverse organization and in others it has to be the cold, calculating, conservative and insensitive organization. It’s usually the latter when reality sets in, and they have to deal with a public nuisance or budgetary issue. (As an aside, were installing fare gates a more liberal or more conservative thing for Metro to do? I say conservative.)

    In any case, most of these people are homeless by choice, and do not want our help. Look at how badly the interventionists failed. All of their new outreach efforts will also fail. So they don’t want help, and they can’t sleep at Union Station. Go somewhere else. Maybe people can use the restroom while waiting for their trains or buses. I never could at Union Station.

    Part of the reason I stopped riding transit is that it was harder to avoid the homeless who aggressively harass you for money. There’s that reality again. I ignored a homeless guy once in front of Union Station and he got up into my face very aggressively, so I lied and said I didn’t hear him when he asked for money and he calmed down. Who needs that shit just to go to a fucking lame train nerd meeting?

  • This policy change will probably never affect me. Given that the seating area is not controlled access—it’s essentially a wide corridor that is the main entrance to the station—there will probably be selective enforcement, with discrimination against people based on their appearance. Either that or they constantly harass everybody. I guess since they added fare gates the ticket-checkers have nothing better to do.

  • Erik Griswold

    Have you been by to see it in person?

  • Erik Griswold

    The picture Damien has placed with this article is the interior of the old Harvey House Restaurant, which is used for private events and is rarely open to the General Public. For those who have never been to the original LA Union Station, such as most Metro staff apparently, this is not the area that the policy addresses

  • andrelot

    Rail fans are not a valid constituency when planning infrastructure (like plane spotters can be completely ignored when designing airports). Their “plight” (of not being able to look at trains and have as much access to as much photo-ops as possible) is a ‘fandom’ issue, unrelated to the efficiency, comfort, cost and safety of transportation.

    I just dismiss all such complains as silliness. Trains are there to transport people, not to amuse fans who’d spend hours looking at them, statically.

    There are a lot of “fans” of many industrial processes (from port operations to manufacturing and what else), they don’t have any valid need to be accommodated.

  • Erik Griswold

    1970’s? It was dead until Metrolink started up in the early 1990’s! And frankly, things did not really pick up until after the original Pasadena Gold Line was opened.
    What Metro seems to be ignoring is that it is exactly the addition of the subway, light rail and buses that makes the place as lively and as valuable as it is. So can those customer also have a place to sit tf they want?

  • andrelot, I full agree as to the foamer’s complaints. I have told him that Union Station’s purpose isn’t to serve rail fans, but a facility for people to have access to mobility. But Metro in its initial planning has said it is seeing the facility as not just a hub but also as being integrated with the community. Balancing those two purposes will call for some nimbler thinking then the well intentioned but perhaps sledgehammer approach taken in this instance.

  • sahra

    As a street photographer, I like to go there and just hang out. It’s a beautiful place and an optimal place to people-watch. The light is amazing, the ceilings and furnishings, majestic, and all kinds of people are trundling through at all hours of the day. The mood there changes with the angle of the sun and with the composition of folks that just stepped through the doors. I will be sad to see certain areas quarantined. Are there issues with people “abusing” of the place, if that’s the word? Yes. But worldwide, train stations are gathering sites for those with no other place to go. Knowing that, perhaps doing some programming with homeless services could help? And, for what it’s worth, the few nights I did come through Union Station very late, I never saw anything close to 135 ppl laying around…

  • davistrain

    As an occasional passenger on the 1:40 AM Ambus to Bakersfield (having arrived a bit before midnight on the Gold Line), I’ve been asked to show valid tickets while in the waiting room. I keep them in my shirt pocket for easy access and once I show them, it’s “Thank you” and on to the next person.

  • I used to go through Union Station regularly, but I don’t anymore. I haven’t been there since the new policy was announced.

  • Ryanc

    Got to see this new policy in action today first hand. It’s awful!

    Half of the seating area is no longer used and security divides the remaining  area into two sections , MetroLink and Amtrak. You now no longer have a choice  of were to sit.  If you are a Mega Bus, Bolt Bus or any other customer of the hand full of travel agencies that use Union Station or want to grab something to eat, you’re out of luck. You are no longer welcomed and are banished to sit on the floor in front of the Subway or out side in the cold. 

    Just a awful and very un welcoming environment. 

    Is it really too hard to spot homeless people these days? I have traveled through Union Station many times over the past 5 years, it’s not really hard to spot them or even smell them. 

    Why is it that the average person who wants to use the Station being punished? It’s really not fair to the majority. 

    I really hope this stupid policy goes away! 

  • ubrayj02

    I think that, instead of a ticket, people in Union Station should be asked to carry a notarized deed or a lease for their place of residence so that the police being asked to enforce this idiotic policy will a be able to discriminate per the intent of this policy.

  • Spokker

    How could this possibly happen in progressive Los Angeles? Aren’t the elected officials Democrats? Don’t they believe in social justice? You guys didn’t vote for liberal, progressive and Democratic politicians just so people could be discriminated against, right? Right?!

  • Guest

    The situation was really out of control, at times and getting worse. Especially at night. Sometimes almost every seat was being used as a shelter substitute or storage for bags of belongings or recyclables. My Amtrak train was delayed two hours and not a seat to be found except the one with something smeared on it.

    Amtrak fetches riders from this area because the platform isnt available as a waiting area so these passengers should be able to have a chance at utilizing it. Long distance passengers generally have longer wait times due to less frequent headways, so it really makes sense. I use the station almost daily via subway or light rail. If you really need to sit down there is seating at the other end of the tunnel on the Vignes side. Yes, I know, it is less than ideal being large concrete benches and somewhat more exposed to the elements but if you are passing through as an MTA user, you probably won’t need to wait long. Yes, those waiting to pick up someone are out of luck but nothing is perfect and this is working better than the mess that existed before.

    In other cities when these problems develop they just remove the seating and lock the restrooms. I’m glad to see Metro is at least trying something else.

    It is a transit facility. If you are indignant about reasonable enforcement go fight for decent homeless, mental health, or substance abuse services. Housing them at Union Station isn’t the answer.

  • Ryanc

    Then the solution it to kick those people that are suspected to be homeless out, its not hard as they are easy to spot. This use to be the policy in the past when Union Station was not operated by Metro, and it worked!

    The policy should be this:

    General Public- Allowed to be in the waiting area for 1-hour. 12am – 4am the waiting area is closed to the general pubic.

    Metrolink Ticket Holders- Allowed to be in the waiting area for 3-hours.

    Amtrak Ticket Holders- Allowed to be in the waiting area for 6-hours.

  • Erik Griswold

    “you probably won’t need to wait long. ”

    Yes, that should be the case. But it isn’t always. Add traveling with children to the mix or trying to figure out your other options because your Metrolink train got “annulled” for “Mechnaical Reasons” yet again, and guess what, you might need a seat.

    There are rules and laws available to Metro intended for the removal of “undesirables” that can be used without imposing apartheid on the region’s major transportation hub the week we dais farewell to Nelson Mandela.

  • Erik Griswold

    Last I checked, I could only vote for one of the members of the Metro BOD. Something tells me this wasn’t run by them beforehand. Of course, even if it was, the current and previous chairs of the Metro BOD are/were Republicans.

  • spijim

    I don’t live in LA but I’ve been to Union Station a few times (mostly during the day) and noticed a few obviously homeless people in the bathroom at different times but it was nothing out of the ordinary compared to the east coast train stations I’m used to. I think the main, easily observable difference is the sleeping during the day and overnight camping that isn’t tolerated at places like South Station, Penn, 30th St., DC Union, etc. There’s also a much, much larger contingent of militant, shelter resistant homeless in LA who can also be incredibly aggressive when it comes to panhandling or marking “turf” in public places.

    I have a relative who is schizophrenic and who has dealt with several periods of homelessness and/or drug abuse in his life. I’m naturally sympathetic. On the other hand, the answer isn’t to accommodate or encourage anti-social behavior to the point that your average metro commuter avoids the station or stops using transit altogether. That’s not what’s best for everyone nor is it best for the homeless. Throwing some change in someone’s cup or letting them sleep on a station bench isn’t helping anyone. It’s petty charity, not change and at best it’s perpetuating the status quo. The answer is to make it as difficult as possible for the homeless to continue to avoid real help. That’s never going to happen as long as they have a warm place to sleep, clean, running water, and a steady stream of people willing to give them money and/or food.

    I also think there should be a place for people who aren’t mentally ill but who aren’t necessarily cut out for the modern, urban world. I just don’t think that place is in a city much less the floor of a busy train station.

  • Guest

    Its hardly an “apartheid” to say the seating is for people that are traveling long distances and most likely need it rather than a homeless shelter but it was a good laugh to read the dramatization.

  • Justin Nelson

    I think the idea is that Metro service is so frequent that you don’t need to wait at the station for things, while Metrolink and Amtrak often have hours (or days, in the case of Amtrak) between trains. (Not saying that I agree, but that that might be the rationale.)

  • LarryLurex70

    I think it’ll be interesting to see how this policy is enforced if/when LA Union Station eventually does become a 24 hour destination with, say, an all-night cafe such as the one at Washington Union Station. There are clearly homeless people hanging out there and at the McDonald’s, but, I’ve yet to notice the heavy (compared to Los Angeles) police presence there hustling folks out simply because they don’t “look right”. If LAUS ever opens up a 24 hour cafe, will transients still be given the bum’s rush from 1-4am and discouraged from simply hanging out like others do even if they’re paying customers?

  • Jonatha Rios

    Well I been working security at Union Station for over a year and let me tell you im glad this happened. It broke my heart a lot of times seeing Amtrak and metro link customers having to sit on the floors at 6 am while all homeless folks completely took all the seats. To make matters worse, the traveling children had to sit on the floors too. So far we have seen less incidents from petty theft to sexual crimes. We are still dealing with the homeless walking through the property smelling bad, panhandling, use of illecit drugs, camping out inside bathroom stalls/ undergroung parking lots, and many more.

  • Ray Ortiz

    I think the folks that have never been to Union Station or have not had to deal with the issues outlined here should refrain from commenting. As someone who travels through union station on a daily basis, I am sick and tired of getting hassled, harassed and otherwise exploited by the “homeless” that make Union Station their home. It’s very common for them to get irate at you, start yelling at you simply for sitting in “their seat” or for them to try and swindle you out of money. I would want those folks that think Union Station should be a refuge for the homeless to walk into one of the restrooms at the station. Chances are the smell alone would convince you otherwise. It’s easy to bark off ideas, its another thing to find solutions. Like many here, I feel this problem is beyond Union Station and as such Union Station and its patrons should not have the problem forced on them. If you lie the homeless so much, invite a few over to your house.

  • calwatch

    But what happened over the last five years? How come when Catellus was running the joint it wasn’t anywhere near as bad?

  • calwatch

    MTA is now claiming only 20 people emailed them to complain about the policy: http://www.scribd.com/doc/198550854/Los-Angeles-Union-Station-Action-Plan

    While it may be only 20 people specifically emailing Ken Pratt (whose phone number is on the Board item, should you wish to express your opinion), there have been a lot more people emailing individual Board members and politicians about this policy. So they obviously are not hearing it from them.

  • I have been pondering that. Let us remember these are people who even when told about resources spurned them. They prefer to live on the streets. Maybe with the gentrification, BID patrols etc. these folks are finding downtown less of an option for camping out. After Occupy trashed the City Hall lawn there is a lot more scrutiny of people trying to live in parks. And don’t doubt the networking abilities of folks on the margin — they tell each other at what places you can use the restrooms without tokens, get free coffee, where charities do handouts, etc. Maybe the word got out Union Station was available for crashing at and as a few were able to get away with it that created a buzz and it snowballed from there…

  • Can you tell me what your solution is? Restrictions just overnight? Do nothing? Taking potshots at a public agency is easy but how about also offering some constructive suggestions? I do think people taking up residence isn’t reasonable — maybe reserve an area for just sitting and clear it out once an hour?

  • James Fujita

    Any rail fan who truly liked and appreciated trains would buy a ticket and ride Metro Rail, Metrolink or Amtrak to get to the station.

    That would guarantee access to at least one platform while also letting the rail fan take photos while riding a train.

  • calwatch

    Did you read the Board item? Closing the station overnight reduced the number of campers by 75%. Yes, there were people who apparently were waiting to occupy seats at 4 AM but they could have been dealt with through extension of hours, not police state checking of tickets. I would have extended the hours of station closure to the general public to 8 pm to 6 am, and allowed anyone to wait who had valid fare on them, with the individual identifying the bus or train that they were getting on and followup if that person did not leave for that bus or train in a timely manner.

  • I glanced at the report. My time has been consumed with the repositioning of SO.CA.TA for this century. There have been some indications the Board knows this is a black eye for the agency and I imagine some sort of action will come out of the meeting on the 23rd. Hopefully a policy that makes more sense than “police state” tactics…

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