Shelter the Unsheltered offers compassionate solution to homeless problem on LA Metro system

LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- The pandemic requires Metro to thoroughly clean buses and trains to keep riders safe from COVID-19, but that can be difficult when many of Los Angeles' homeless population are finding shelter on those same modes of transportation.

"It's heartbreaking. You got humanity in there using it for a bathroom and just not getting off the system. So ultimately, we wanted to develop a strategy that would encourage them into treatment and housing," said Bob Green, Metro Chief of System Security.

Part of that strategy is to require all riders to leave the trains at key terminus stations to allow cleaning crews to move in. But instead of forcing homeless riders back on to the street, Operation Shelter the Unsheltered tries to get them help.

Shelter the Unsheltered is a task force of several agencies working together to provide housing and mental health services to homeless people who spend most of the day on or near Metro trains. By closely tracking bed availability, Metro can then provide transportation to shelters within a 15-20 minute bus ride which is often a key factor for whether a person accepts the shelter.

PATH outreach team members are joined by transit security and specialized law enforcement units who have mental health intervention training. They try to create a connection instead of making arrests.

"We're trying to gain the trust and be compassionate with the homeless people, to gain trust and let them know, we're here to help," said Sgt. John Finley with the L.A. County Sheriff's Department. "If we can get them into any kind of shelter -- we carry clothes and everything else -- but our goal is to get them off of the system and into some type of housing where they can have a second shot at life."

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Since the program began last April, over 700 people have accepted shelter through the program, a marked increase from January 2020 when only 46 people received the same help through Metro.

"It's geared toward treating human beings in a very respectful, dignified manner and encouraging them to get the services that they need," said Green.

Outreach efforts usually require several attempts before someone accepts the help offered, but as Operation Shelter the Unsheltered builds on its early success, it might become a program other cities will copy to meet a need that continues to grow as well.

"There's not one overall solution that, boom, is going to solve a problem. But what we have are 50,000+ people who have serious life issues, challenges that need to be addressed and helped," said Steve Fiechter, senior director of programming at PATH.

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