SAN FRANCISCO — Riders who stuff their dollars and spare change into red Salvation Army kettles inside BART stations this year will be putting their money toward outreach efforts aimed at the growing number of homeless people seeking warmth and shelter within the transit system.
The new partnership between BART and the Salvation Army speaks to the transit agency’s role in trying to contain and manage a homelessness crisis that often plays out in stations and on trains. And it could point toward a closer relationship between the organizations in the future, as BART officials consider a broader partnership with the Salvation Army to provide outreach services to homeless people at the stations.
Like in years past, the nonprofit’s holiday bell ringers will set up in BART stations throughout the Bay Area during the charity’s annual Red Kettle Campaign, which started in November and runs through Christmas Eve. This year, though, the money people give at those 35 stations will be used for necessities and services provided specifically to homeless people encountered in the BART system, including items such as socks and blankets, and longer-term solutions such as shelter beds, treatment centers and case management. People can also donated unused paper BART tickets, and the value will added to the pot.
“When you give to a Salvation Army kettle you can expect change,” said Darren Norton, the charity’s Golden State divisional commander, at a news conference inside the Powell Street station, as commuters, shoppers and tourists streamed through the concourse. In a corridor leading to one of the station’s exits, a man played guitar for change as riders stepped past people sleeping on the floor. Norton said the money will be used in the county where the donation was made.
Although BART’s primary role is to move people from place to place, the intensity of homelessness in the Bay Area has forced the agency to take on a bigger role in confronting a vexing problem that can leave other riders feeling uncomfortable, unsafe or unsure of how best to help. The problem with homelessness can overlap with people who have drug addictions and mental health issues, sometimes with devastating results. Just two weeks ago, a man who walked away from a San Leandro hospital fatally stabbed a BART rider who had intervened to try and stop him from stealing a sleeping man’s shoes.
“People in the Bay Area want to see change,” said BART Board President Bevan Dufty. “They want to see people (who are) homeless get the help they need. They want people who have addiction to be able to get treatment.”
The number of homeless people in the four counties BART serves grew by 29 percent from 2017 to 2019, according to counts of people staying in shelters or sleeping on the streets. The rise was most acute in Alameda and Contra Costa counties, which each recorded 43-percent increases in their homeless populations.
BART has responded with a number of programs meant to help connect homeless people in the system to local services, including outreach teams at stations in San Francisco and Contra Costa County. The agency hopes to expand those teams to stations in Alameda and San Mateo counties soon.
But Dufty said those services can fall short if BART’s homeless outreach workers can’t immediately refer people who want help to shelter beds and treatment centers.
“There aren’t the resources to say, ‘You can go directly to treatment if you’re ready for treatment,’ or, ‘We have a room for you tonight,’” Dufty said.
“The difficulty is, we’re a transit agency,” he added. “We don’t have the services.”
Dufty sees one solution to that problem in an expanded relationship with the Salvation Army that could last well past this holiday season.
Rather than the current patchwork of outreach agreements with different counties, Dufty said a system-wide partnership with the nonprofit organization could allow BART’s teams to more smoothly steer people toward the charity’s services. He said he expects the idea to come before BART’s board of directors early next year.
“Our priority really is to deliver help immediately to people,” Dufty said, “and to give people who are homeless the best options possible to have an impact.”