1 year in, here's how LA Metro's homeless program is doing

FILE: A homeless person covers up on a bus stop bench before dawn October 12, 2007 in downtown Los Angeles, California.
FILE: A homeless person covers up on a bus stop bench before dawn October 12, 2007 in downtown Los Angeles, California.
David McNew/Getty Images

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Nowhere in Los Angeles County is immune from the mounting homelessness crisis, least of all public transit. Homeless encampments have proliferated around stations, while buses and trains are used as shelter. 

To address the issue, last year the Metropolitan Transportation Authority launched a pilot program to keep track of homeless people on and near the system and connect them with services.

Two outreach teams of medical and mental health providers, substance abuse counselors and formerly homeless advocates from various county, city and community groups, have been reaching out along the Red Line subway.

At the monthly meeting of the Metro board Thursday, staff presented the initial results of the pilot. The teams had interacted with about 1,500 individuals over the last 10 months — 19 were actually placed in permanent housing, while 445 more were connected with programs that work to provide temporary or permanent housing.

L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, one of the early proponents of the program on the Metro Board, applauded the effort at the meeting and proposed expanding the pilot to other train lines and buses.

"We've got to run faster to keep up with this crisis," he said, noting that the number of people falling into homelessness currently surpasses the number put into housing. The number of homeless in L.A. County grew by more than 20 percent between 2016 and 2017 despite stepped up efforts, including two ballot measures raising funding for homeless housing and services.

While Metro board members stressed the moral need to join in efforts to address the exploding homeless population in the county, the problem also poses an economic threat for the agency, which has seen ridership steadily fall over the last several years despite billions of dollars in new rail investments.

"We need to make sure that our passengers know that we are trying to make their experience the most positive possible," said Ridley-Thomas.

Metro surveys of people who have stopped riding transit show safety concerns among the top cited reasons. Metro has stepped up policing, nearly doubling the presence of law enforcement on trains and buses since last July, when a new multi-agency police contract took effect.

But Metro's project manager for the outreach effort, Jennifer Loew, said the agency "cannot arrest our way out of the problem." Metro is collaborating with the L.A. Police Department and Sheriff's Department, which each have their own outreach programs for dealing with the homeless.

The agency is also advocating for resources from the county-wide sales tax, Measure H, passed last year to fund homeless services by raising more than $300 million annually.

The board will discuss ways to further fund the program when it discusses next year's budget at its meeting in April.

This story has been updated.