Homeless in transit

A night at Powell Station shows how BART rousts the homeless in enforcing its new ban on sitting and lying

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A BART police officer wakes a person sleeping in Powell Station and asks him to leave.
Photo by Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez

joe@sfbg.com

For most people, the Bay Area Rapid Transit system's stations are just that: transitory. Walk into Powell Station, zip down the escalator and glide out on a train, destination somewhere. But for homeless people drawn to BART stations, the agency is a place to be stationary, a home and safe haven from the elements, muggings, and other hazards of sleeping on streets.

But now, BART intends to reclaim the T in its name. It wants the homeless to be transitory and get out of the stations.

Last week, the agency announced new enforcement of existing safety regulations that ensure people can evacuate a BART station in an emergency. BART argues homeless people sleeping or sitting in BART station hallways are in the way of a swift evacuation.

This legal interpretation gave BART carte blanche to scoop the homeless up and out. On the first day of the new rules, 17 homeless people were removed from Powell Station, which the agency justified to news media by repeatedly showing a video of a smokey accident that sent passengers fleeing.

"We had places where a big puff of smoke would fill the station very quickly," Jeffrey Jennings, BART Police's deputy chief, told the Guardian. "People were running not knowing what happened, very fearful. Other people were lying down, tripping folks. We could have had significant injuries occur because of that."

First time offenders get a verbal warning, the second offense garners a citation, and the third offense jail time, all in the name of safety.

But the idea that homeless sleepers in all parts of a BART station may be trampled seems a little silly. Sure, there are sections of BART that are narrow and should be kept clear, but a walk through Powell Station shows 20-foot wide hallways throughout. This is where the homeless often sleep and sit.

At 8pm on a Wednesday, Powell Station is quiet and mostly empty, except for Charles T. He's sitting in a chair right by the Powell Street entrance, strumming a guitar (skillfully), singing Otis Redding's "Dock of the Bay."

His voice is a dead ringer for Redding's: "Sitting on the dock of the Bay, wasting my good time... I have nothing to live for, looks like nothing's going to come my way. So I'm just going to sit on the dock of the Bay."

Some still sat in Powell Station that night, flouting the new ban. A woman in baggy clothes sat by the Fourth and Market streets stairwell, cuddling her very big, very droopy-faced Rottweiler. A bald man in soiled gray pants sat along the hallway to the next exit. Slightly past him lay a man with long black hair snoring next to the wall. And at the end of that hallway, two men stayed in each other's orbit: a slender one in a red jacket and blue jeans slept with his dirt-caked hands folded over his stomach, while a portly man sat nearby on cardboard boxes, tapping his fingers to a silent tune.

The last man we saw sat with his feet pulled under his knees by the entrance to the Westfield Centre, studiously reading his Bible as he underlined passages from Revelations. The would-be scholar, Henry Terry, 59, greeted us with a smile.

Terry was born in Los Angeles, a child of Watts who was a kid during the violent 1965 riots when 34 people died, over 1,000 people were injured, and the neighborhood burned. Terry's mother sent him to Alabama with his father.

Terry fondly recalls growing corn, peas, watermelon, okra, squash, and sugar cane. That's food he doesn't have ready access to nowadays.

After bouts with the bottle and drugs, Terry cleaned himself up and got a place to live at the Hotel Essex, part of the city's Community Housing Partnership. But alcohol lured Terry back. While in rehab, he missed an important court date, and he was evicted.

Now he spends his nights holding his Bible sitting in a BART station, seeking guidance and shelter. "The only thing getting me back to functioning is reading God's word," he said.

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