Can Metro Move the Masses Safely when Homelessness, Drugs, and Crime are on the Rise

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LA TRANSPO - Still Riding Metro, and the stations, trains and air are cleaner. Can Metro continue to make this the norm for transportation? 

Perhaps it is stubbornness, well, it is stubbornness. Since the COVID pandemic shutdown the riding experiences on Metro’s light rail and heavy rail subways lines have been in a free-fall, with the situation teetering on the edge of complete chaos. The homeless have been riding Metro buses and trains, and the buses of other SoCal transit agencies for years before the COVID shutdown, so that was not new, but during the shutdown the numbers seemed overwhelming. Yet, I continued to ride Metro’s light rail and subway trains, of course wearing a facemask, which I still do.  

It seems some homeless advocates thought trains make for excellent homeless shelters. That may be, but that is not their function. The overriding function of mass transit is to move the masses safely, securely, timely, in large numbers where we feel safe. 

During the COVID shutdown the trains and stations were littered with trash as never before. 

In the evenings some Metro stations and trains seemed to be a site for Meetups of rowdy block parties. Drinking alcohol was in the open.  

Then, the Metro trains became rolling drug dens with drug use in the open. There was smoking of tobacco, but also pot, crack, meth, fentanyl. This was particularly shocking, and deeply disturbing because we non-drug user transit riders were subjected to second-hand smoke of dangerous chemicals and drugs, and wary of the obvious danger that smoking on trains is a fire hazard. 

In this dire situation of rising crime, assault and deaths on Metro’s trains and buses it looked like the entire transit network would collapse. 

Those transit riders who fled, and those of us remaining transit riders spoke out. But with a historic image of a distant, silent Metro, seemingly unresponsive to the needs and wants of its riders, hope seemed remote for the necessary changes to get the transit system back on its feet. 

So why would I continue to ride Metro trains and buses when the riding experience was moving beyond uncomfortable towards unhealthy from second-hand smoke and dangerous? Because I am stubborn, but why beyond stubbornness? Because I am scared of the increasing threats from climate chaos from global warming whose main source of growth is vehicle exhaust. I must do my part to reduce my carbon footprint. Driving less and riding buses and trains more is the very effective, and immediate step to reducing one’s output of carbon gases.  

There was also the hope, if seemingly misplaced, that Metro, its Board of Directors, elected officials, management and others with the authority and power to address this situation would act to address what must be said was a very bad riding experience. The need to stop the hemorrhaging of transit riders was urgent. 

What many transits rider want for their safety and comfort in riding trains and buses is more police, more authority figures to not abuse, but to make for a transit riding experience which gives the rider some sense of safety. We transit riders want to know we are not left out in the cold, left to our own devices for safety, but are thought of as we navigate the L.A. sprawl. 

Abuse by police must be addressed, and not allowed, but when there is no authority present, that vacuum is filled with chaos, disruptions, assaults-physical and sexual, harassment of transit riders, open drug use, litter.  

There must be some standard of policing where transit riders feel safe, and not threatened by others, nor threatened by police. There must be a sense that the riders of Metro will know police will be present when there are threatening situations, but not feel threatened, nor abused by the police. 

Metro created an Ambassador’s program where unarmed Metro workers help riders who have questions, and when riding Metro trains there are always questions, and to act as a safety liaison for the police. They are to give security on a passive level, and should the situation ride about passive, notify police. 

I had doubts that this Ambassador program could make the shaky Metro transit ride something of stable normalcy. 

The Metro Ambassador program was launched in the beginning of March 2023. 

I continue to ride Metro’s trains, confined to my various destinations, using the Crenshaw and Expo Light Rail Lines, and the Red and Purple Subway Lines. Though my territory does not extensively cover Metro’s growing light rail and subway network, I do use the Metro Stations which have seen a greater percentage of the chaos. The Red Line has been particularly chaotic, with open drug use greater than the other lines. 

I have been a long-time critic on Metro’s operations and will probably remain a long time critic. But with hope there are thoughts that there may come a time when things shift and change for the better, and my most recent rides have been much better. 

The overall feel is more stable. The trash and litter is much less. Trains and stations are cleaner. The air is better, cleaner. In the past weeks there has been only one incident of smoking on a line, the Red Line. Someone informed an Ambassador, who called in the incident. 

The grinding and serious issues of homelessness; open drug use; the sad sights to the mentally ill shouting to the wind-which can also be a shout out for help, are much less. These problems, of course, have not disappeared in this city, they are still present in the lives of all in SoCal. But they are not, presently, thrust in the faces of transit riders, many of whom are sympathetic to the plight of the homeless; the mentally ill; hoping those caught in the downward spiral of drug abuse find sobriety, but transit riders deserve to ride trains and buses without harassment, without abusers, without breathing in second-hand drug smoke.  

Metro’s latest budget reflects an outreach to address these problems. 

From an analysis of Metro’s next budget:

Public Safety

To deliver a safer system, we’re implementing a comprehensive, multi-layered strategy that focuses on getting a more visible presence of staff on our system. That means continued funding for contracting law enforcement services, more of our own Transit Security Officers to help ensure compliance with our Code of Conduct and funding for our pilot Metro Ambassador program that officially launched earlier this year.

Mental Health, Drug Addiction and Unhoused

The new budget invests more money to improve our response to societal issues that impact our transit system. The proposed budget invests $13.5 million in outreach to unhoused people in partnership with People Assisting the Homeless (PATH) and the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services (DHS). The budget also dedicates $10 million to a new partnership with the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health Services (DMH), to provide training support to identify mental health concerns and proper responses and Community Mental Health Ambassadors. We also plan to spend another $1.8 million for short-term shelters, workforce partnerships and other strategies to help address these issues on our system.

There have been changes for the better for Metro’s riders. From at least one Metro rider a Thank You goes out. But, in a city known for a short attention span, the burden remains on Metro to not let the situation slide back.

(Matthew Hetz is a Los Angeles native, a composer whose works have been performed nationally, and some can be found here.  He is the past President of the Culver City Symphony Orchestra and Marina del Rey Symphony. His dedication to transit issues is to help improve the transit riding experience for all, and to convince drivers to ride buses and trains to fight air pollution and global warming. He is an instructor at Emeritus/Santa Monica College and a regular contributor to CityWatchLA.)

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