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Homeless advocates cry foul over BART anti-sleeping crackdown

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BART
  • mike koozmin/the s.f. examiner
  • BART is using Building Code to clear homeless people out of station passageways.
The BART police crackdown on people sleeping in the common areas of the Powell and Civic Center stations — soon to expand systemwide — has sparked the ire of homeless advocates and came about in curious fashion.

The longstanding, but never-before-enforced, law on blocking passageways that is being cited by BART was not unearthed by the transportation system’s lawyers in the hopes of avoiding lawsuits when fleeing patrons trip over the slumbering homeless individuals.

Instead, it was discovered by an enterprising former BART cop, BART Deputy Police Chief Jeffrey Jennings said.

When the sergeant, who has engineering training, returned to the BART Police Department after a hiatus, he noticed people in the massive underground passageways with their legs sticking into the hall and thought they may be in the way if the system had to be evacuated, said Jennings, who would not name the officer.

The sergeant’s eye for detail caught his manager’s interest and they researched the matter, Jennings said. They found a California Building Code requiring unobstructed passageways. Apparently, BART has been disobeying the law for decades.

“We have an obligation to make sure our citizens, our customers, can get out and first responders can get in,” Jennings said. “We’re not expelling anyone from the system. We are just asking the people there to sit there with their legs crossed and be awake.”

No one can spend all night in a BART station, since doors close at 1:30 a.m.

The crackdown started in late July at the Powell Street station and was then expanded to the Civic Center station. Offenders are given first a verbal warning, then a citation followed by a summons for court and finally arrested.

So far, Jennings said, BART police have interviewed 144 people at the Powell Street station, warned 43, given summons to 36 and arrested 12. Another 12 were arrested on warrants. One arrest was made for resisting arrest and one for sex register and one for narcotics possession. At Civic Center station, 52 have been interviewed, 10 cited, four given summons and none arrested, except for two who had warrants. One person was sent to a mental health facility.

Jennings and BART spokeswoman Alicia Trost said the enforcement has nothing to do with pushing poor, homeless people from the system. BART is simply following California Building Code Section 433, which it is enforcing by using California law and city codes barring people from laying down and blocking free movement in underground stations.

But some homeless advocates are calling BART’s rationale ridiculous and targeted at the homeless who often have done nothing.

A new online video by the Coalition on Homelessness interviewed people sleeping in BART stations who said they had been targeted and roughed up solely because they are homeless.

“From our perspective, it’s a pretense,” Jennifer Friedenbach, the executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness, said about BART’s enforcement of building codes. “‘Why now?’ is a really good question.”

Friedenbach says the sudden call to crack down is a misapplication of the law and criminalizes people for sleeping, people with nowhere else to go.

“They can’t sleep on the sidewalks, they can’t sleep in the parks. Where do you expect people to sleep?” asked Friedenbach, who noted that everyone, homeless or not, has a right not to be arrested unless they have broken a law.

Nick Kimura, a volunteer for the Coalition on Homelessness, said that the shelter beds in San Francisco — of which there are about 1,150 for single people and another 284 for families — are often full because there are so in need of them. There are anywhere from 6,000 to 7,000 homeless on the streets currently.

“We were very aware that we would impact people that don’t have a place to stay,” said Jennings, but he added that BART’s outreach coordinator tries to direct those contacted by BART police to services.

“It is a societal issue,” Jennings said of homelessness, “but we realized we have a duty to protect our patrons.”