Citing Homeless Infusion, Lancaster Officials Move to Shutter Metrolink Station

A sheriff's deputy checks tickets outside an L.A.-bound train in Lancaster. When told the city may close the station, he expressed surprise and said he doesn't see many who appear to be homeless. (Steven Cuevas/KQED)

http://www.kqed.org/.stream/anon/radio/tcr/2014/09/2014-09-11b-tcr.mp3

The Antelope Valley, about an hour and a half north of Los Angeles, is home to roughly 12 percent of the county’s homeless population. Officials from the city of Lancaster claim that number grows by the day because of an alleged migration of train-hopping homeless people.

To curb this apparent surge of homelessness, the city aims to shutter the sole commuter train station linking Lancaster to L.A.

On a recent weekday morning in Lancaster, about two dozen young people, senior citizens and neatly dressed professionals disembark from one of just two trains that arrive from Los Angeles each morning.

According to Lancaster’s chief of public safety, Lee D’Errico, Metrolink commuter trains also ferry dozens of homeless people a week to the city. His office recently conducted a three-day homeless survey.

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“And on one particular day we counted and contacted over 67 individuals that were coming here for transitory services being provided,” said D’Errico during a presentation to the City Council last month. “And they indicated to us that the train was their main mechanism for moving throughout communities to obtain those services.”

Details of how the study was conducted are unclear, other than it was apparently carried out with the assistance of the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department and a local merchants association.

Numerous city officials reached for this story would not disclose, among other things, how many homeless individuals were contacted in total over the three-day study, what kind of questions were asked or even what specific dates the survey was done.

D’Errico declined several requests for an interview and for data collected in the survey. He referred all inquiries to City Manager Mark Bozigian.

“The purpose (of the survey) was to ascertain general information regarding point of origin and need for services for Metrolink riders arriving at the Lancaster Metrolink station,” said Bozigian in a written response to a series of emailed questions from The California Report.

Bozigian suggested that in fact some individuals counted in the survey might not have actually been homeless or seeking services in Lancaster, only “likely” doing so.

“During one survey day, it was observed that 67 individuals who arrived via Metrolink were likely homeless and/or arriving for the purpose of receiving social services,” said Bozigian.

No written report on the results of the survey was ever submitted to, or apparently requested by, the City Council. Yet it is being cited by Mayor Rex Parris and other officials as justification to either shut down or move the Lancaster Metrolink station about 10 miles to the south.

“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out 67 homeless people a day being shipped from downtown to us is, uh. I, I mean, isn’t it about time we quit being victims of downtown Los Angeles?” said Parris during an August council meeting.

The Lancaster Metrolink station is used by some 400 L.A.-bound commuters a day, including Dominic Bongiovanni, a Vietnam War veteran with a bushy beard and long silver hair who gets around with the help of a motorized wheelchair.

Bongiovanni uses Metrolink several times a week to get to and from doctor appointments in West L.A. He usually catches the first train out of Lancaster at 3:58 AM to get to those appointments on time.

“Now you wanna move the station somewhere else? I have to hope the buses are running on time and I get that train,” says Bongiovanni.

I ask if he sees many homeless people on his rides back from L.A.

“I look like I’m homeless!” he laughs.

“I’ve seen maybe three times homeless people and I’ve been riding Metrolink for the six years I’ve lived up here.”

The Lancaster Metrolink station has long been an irritant to police and city officials. It became a haven for prostitution, drug dealing and other petty crime. A Metrolink spokesman says the agency is taking steps to increase security. That includes more security personal and fencing off the station platform so it cannot be accessed by people without tickets.

It’s common to find a few homeless people loitering in or around the property. The station is a short walk from numerous homeless service providers, including Grace Resource Center, the biggest in the region.

It operates a cavernous thrift store, a food bank and the area’s only shelter for homeless families and individuals. The center’s director, Steve Baker, says people occasionally do drop in from outside the area.

“The ones that I see that are not local. A lot of them they just hop on the train to get away from somebody down in L.A.,” says Baker.

“And I go, you came here because you think there’s a lot of help? Well, there isn’t. How about we send you back? And then I’ll work it out, and try to get them back on the train.”

The Antelope Valley, which includes the cities of Lancaster and Palmdale, is home to approximately 6,000 homeless people. Service providers in the region try to funnel those seeking assistance through a coordinated intake center in Lancaster.

According to the local branch of the organization Mental Health America, the number of people coming through the center is fairly stable -- roughly 300 to 400 a month.

A small fraction are from outside the region, says MHA’s director, Judy Cooperberg.

“A very, very small percentage,” she says.

“The majority of people we serve are indigenous to the Antelope Valley. I do not believe that we have 67 people a day coming from L.A.,” says Cooperberg, contradicting the findings of Lancaster’s recent street survey.

But Lancaster’s vice mayor, Marvin Crist, says it doesn’t matter if it’s 67 people a day or just one a day.

“Say it’s one a day. That still overwhelms our system,” says Crist.

“If you gave us the resources to take care of the homeless population, absolutely. But we’re having to react because we don’t have the resources to take care of them,” he says.

Officials have long complained that Los Angeles receives a disproportionate amount of county funding for homeless services compared with the Antelope Valley.

George McQuade, a spokesman for L.A. County homeless services, says that if Lancaster wants more money, it needs to apply for it. McQuade says there have been few specific funding increase requests over the last several years.

But the apparent funding gap isn’t all that’s driving the move to shutter Lancaster’s Metrolink stop.

It’s also a thorn in the side of the city’s ongoing campaign to revitalize its downtown shopping district. Parris says shuttering the station, or moving it south nearly 10 miles to the border of Palmdale, would help shield downtown from the homeless.

“If you have to get 10 miles without transportation to whatever services are there, you are less likely to make the trip in the first place,” says Perris, speaking after this week’s Lancaster City Council meeting.

Better, he says, the problem move somewhere else.

“Better it goes any place but Lancaster. I have 146,000 people and I will protect them, no matter what the consequences elsewhere.”

A vote to close the transit station would also require an environmental review, public hearings and the approval of Metrolink’s board of directors.

But Parris says he won’t wait for approval. If the City Council votes to close the station, he’ll have it fenced off immediately.

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