A “mini-riot” in January at Suburban Station in which SEPTA Transit Police officers used force on several people has prompted changes in how outreach workers and police interact with those who linger at the station late at night.
“I think that was a little bit of a red flag,” said Sister Mary Scullion, executive director of Project HOME, which provides services for the city’s homeless population. “We have to take a step back here and regroup and figure out more effective ways.”
The incident drew attention to the number of homeless people who rely on Suburban Station for shelter — up to 200 on a cold night. It also highlighted what appeared to be communication breakdowns between police and social service agencies over when assistance might be needed.
“Frankly, SEPTA didn’t reach out to us beforehand to try to work with us around that schedule,” said Eva Gladstein, the city’s deputy managing director of health and human services.
In recent weeks, outreach workers assigned to the station have changed their hours to better coordinate with transit police, she said, and SEPTA has an assistant director accompanying police on their rounds.
But advocates emphasized a continuing lack of resources for people who are evicted each night from the transit hub.
SEPTA clears Suburban Station about 12:30 a.m. daily for security reasons and to give cleaning crews time to prepare for the morning commute. The station offers a warm, relatively safe refuge for people, many suffering from mental illness or addiction, who have nowhere else to go. But the space can become dirty. There have been safety concerns, including a stabbing death and an accidental electrocution, in transit stations in the last two years. Drug use, particularly of K2, a synthetic compound sprayed on plant matter and smoked, is widespread.
Gladstein said she believed SEPTA had become more aggressive in how it managed the space. “We were aware that at some point they would be restricting more access to Suburban Station, but we never got a heads-up when that would occur,” she said.
SEPTA officials said policies had not changed, but did say that in the fall, the doors were equipped with bolts to make it harder to reenter after closing. There also is more policing over the weekends, said Keith Seward, an assistant director for stations. In the past, enforcement largely happened on weeknights.
Outreach workers typically made rounds to offer assistance at the station between 9 and 10 p.m. As of this week, Gladstein said, they are timing sweeps to coincide with SEPTA’s nightly clearing.
SEPTA police are also working to have another team of outreach workers assigned to the station specifically to partner with officers doing the nightly clearing. These workers, whom the department sought before January’s incident, will try to connect homeless people in the station with social services.
“It’s people with specific expertise in this area,” said Andrew Busch, a SEPTA spokesman. “We would be looking to have it timed Monday through Friday when it’s most crowded.”
SEPTA is coordinating with the city Department of Behavioral Health, he said, and the outreach workers likely would be affiliated with Pennsylvania Hospital. He did not say when they would start.
After midnight Jan. 15, SEPTA police were in the process of their nightly clearing of Suburban Station when people there, at least some of them homeless, argued with officers. One woman, Tracy Amador, said she blocked doors to the station to prevent officers from evicting people into the freezing cold. Police have said people got physical with officers, and in response, police pepper-sprayed them and hit them with batons. Amador was one of the people struck.
SEPTA’s police chief, Thomas Nestel III, has said that his officers responded to being attacked and that an internal review found no evidence they acted incorrectly. City officials, though, were dismayed police didn’t contact outreach workers before using force.
“If they coordinate with outreach, outreach can offer transportation, and particularly during the winter we have beds and cafes,” Gladstein said.
Officers asked people that night if they wanted social services, Nestel said, but no one accepted. Transit officers typically direct people in the station to 15th Street to connect with outreach workers, but again there seems to be confusion between the police and social service workers. The Department of Homeless Services reported personnel are not regularly assigned to 15th Street near the station, and officials there were not aware police were routinely directing people to that location.
Project HOME operates the Hub of Hope at Suburban Station to provide services for homeless people, but it closes at 7 p.m. It draws up to 500 people a day, Scullion said, and keeping it open throughout the night would be overwhelming.
She noted it was understandable that some people refused offers for shelter. Philadelphia technically is able to provide shelter for anyone who wants it on a Code Blue night, when temperatures drop so low the city makes extra resources available. It has about 2,900 beds available for emergency use, but the need can exceed that. Some people are offered only a chair at a cafe, making sleeping virtually impossible.
“They would find something," she said, "but it’s not a real alternative.”