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'We Approach in Peace': Are BART's Efforts to Help People in Crisis Working?

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A woman in a dark-blue jacket that says 'Crisis Intervention Specialist' on the back walks through a BART train.
BART Crisis Intervention Specialist Natalie Robinson walks through a Dublin/Pleasanton-bound BART train near Lake Merritt station on March 13, 2024, looking for people in distress. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

On a recent rainy morning, Stephine Barnes paces slowly through a covered outdoor walkway off the main entrance of the San Leandro BART station.

“People like to camp out here because you have shelter. There’s no rain, it’s dry. So people just find little nooks and crannies,” Barnes says, surveying the area. “It’s usually where we find a lot of people in the wee hours of the morning, sleeping, camped out, wandering around.”

Barnes is a BART crisis intervention specialist, and her job entails seeking out and offering help to the many people in the sprawling transit system struggling with lack of shelter, mental health problems or addiction. She and her partner for the day, Natalie Robinson, are part of the agency’s ambitious new efforts to address a slew of human crises that show up on BART’s trains and platforms every day — without involving the police.

They spot a young woman with glasses and a purple bow in her hair who is hastily pulling belongings from a bike locker. Two roller bags, a dirty blanket and a ragged stuffed octopus are among the random array of possessions splayed on the ground around her.

Barnes and Robinson approach cautiously, mindful of a large Rottweiler sitting nearby.

“We like to connect people with resources,” Robinson says. “So if you have a need for shelter, housing, anything like that, you can let us know.”

The woman, who gives her name as Cat, seems tentative but receptive. She tells them her boyfriend arrived recently from Southern California. They had been living in their car and storing their belongings in the bike locker. But BART police had just ordered them to clear out.

Cat nods to the dog, which sports a black-and-white smiley face bandana around its neck. “That’s Einstein,” she says. “He’s our son.”

“Oh, my goodness, you’re just a sweetheart,” Barnes exclaims, patting the dog’s head.

A middle-aged Black woman speaks to a younger woman wearing a purple hair decoration.
Outside the San Leandro Bart station, BART Crisis Intervention Specialist Stephine Barnes tells an unhoused person named Cat about a nearby housing assistance program. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

She tells Cat to take her time retrieving her belongings, and emphasizes that she and Robinson are not police officers and aren’t there to pressure her to leave.

“If you guys are interested in getting on the list for permanent housing in Alameda County, there’s a place called Hedco in Hayward,” Barnes tells her. “You can get coffee in the morning and all that kind of stuff. And then they put you in line on how to get these resources for housing and all of those things Alameda County offers.”

Robinson explains how to get there and hands Cat her card, telling her to call if she needs anything.

“I’m really bad with resources, honestly. So this is great,” Cat says, stuffing the card in her jacket pocket and continuing her hurried packing.

“You don’t have to be out here forever,” Robinson says as she and Barnes wish Cat luck and head back toward the station.

They’ll probably never know if she follows through.

“It varies widely,” Robinson says. “We could bring someone to a resource, and they literally don’t walk in the door, or we connect somebody, and they follow all the way through.”

‘Customer service on steroids’

In 2021, Barnes and Robinson, both seasoned BART employees, were among the first to join the crisis intervention team, now a 20-member crew dispatched throughout the 50-station transit system to offer help to people who appear to be overtly in need of it.

Finding that population has gotten a good deal easier in recent years, amid a discernible uptick in the number of people on BART’s trains and platforms experiencing homelessness or suffering from serious mental health issues — a trend that mirrors the overall surge in the Bay Area’s unhoused population since the start of the pandemic.

BART realized “a lot of the problems that were happening outside the station were coming inside the station,” says Barnes, 53, who was a station agent for 27 years, most recently at the Coliseum station in Oakland, before taking this job. “And, of course, as an agent, you see that firsthand.”

BART’s boots-on-the-ground outreach approach, launched in the depths of the pandemic, marks a notable foray into social services for an agency whose main objective has always been getting people from point A to point B.

The effort comes as BART struggles to recoup ridership, which still hovers at just over 40% of pre-pandemic levels, and as riders consistently say in surveys that they’re most dissatisfied with how the agency addresses homelessness.

Two middle-aged women in dark-blue uniforms speak to an unseen passenger on a BART train.
BART Crisis Intervention Specialists Natalie Robinson (left) and Stephine Barnes check on the well-being of a BART passenger they think might need help. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

Those factors have prompted BART’s leaders to ratchet up funding for crisis intervention and related services — to the tune of $11 million last year, according to the agency’s 2023 homeless action plan.

“People have seen a need for something different than what everyone was doing before, which was, ‘Call the police, call the police, call the police,’” says Barnes, who describes her job as “customer service on steroids.”

Most jobs at BART have existed since the agency started running trains more than 50 years ago, she notes.

“There was nothing, though, that really addressed the mental health component or the homelessness crisis that we’re experiencing in the Bay Area,” Barnes says. “So when I first read [about the job], I thought, ‘Wow, this is like the next-level customer service.’ Because some customers need more help than just buying a Clipper Card.”

The CISes, as they’re called, operate under the auspices of BART’s Police Department. But they wear distinctive, labeled uniforms and roam the stations and trains of their assigned zone in pairs, unaccompanied by sworn officers.

They also have no enforcement power and don’t carry any weapons.

They’re armed, instead, with latex gloves, Narcan — used to reverse opioid overdoses — and police radios in the event they need backup. And they use electronic notepads to document and tally their interactions, data the agency hopes will eventually demonstrate the still-undetermined effectiveness of the program.

Some CISes, like Robinson, 49, who worked as a BART police dispatcher for 16 years, also load their pockets with snacks to hand out. Others carry extra pairs of clean socks.

Much of the help CISes offer comes in the form of referrals to a collection of social service and mental health nonprofits sprinkled throughout BART’s five-county service area.

“We get to do God’s work out here,” Robinson says. “We’re helping people who are unhoused, who have substance-abuse issues, mental health issues. And being able to connect them to the proper service — those who are willing to make changes in their life — it’s just really rewarding.”

Signs of distress

On this morning, Barnes and Robinson are about midway through an 8-hour shift, one that began at 5 a.m. and has taken them back and forth multiple times across their zone, from San Leandro to Lake Merritt stations. Much of that is spent patrolling train cars and platforms, searching for telltale signs of distress.

“We pay attention to maybe some drug paraphernalia, someone who might be passed out, and check on their welfare,” Robinson says. “And then we’re also patrolling stations and just interacting with the public and building relationships with individuals that we see on a repeat basis.”

BART station agents and train operators can reach out to the CISes for help dealing with difficult but non-threatening situations, Barnes says. Passengers can also now call BART police to request help from a non-sworn officer, and dispatchers are authorized to reroute certain 911 calls to them.

A person in a bathrobe and slippers walks on a train platform.
A person in a bathrobe and slippers walks along the platform of the Fruitvale BART Station — someone that Crisis Intervention Specialist Stephine Barnes says she has interacted with multiple times. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

“We can be more accessible to the public than the officers can. They’re responding to emergencies, they’re responding to fights, they’re responding to someone with a weapon,” Barnes says. “But we can take the time out. If you need to talk to me for an hour, you have me for an hour. If I need to escort you on the train, and I need to take you to a resource that’s 30, 40 minutes away, I have the time to do that.”

Even when people are in their worst state, Barnes says, they’re still generally grateful to have someone checking in on them.

“I mean, of course, there are times when you’re going to be called names and told ‘Get away, you’re going to get your ass kicked,’ she says. “But I got that more as a station agent than I have in this position.”

more on homelessness

BART says CISes “have a background in social work” or related experience and receive a month-long training that focuses on conflict resolution and de-escalation techniques for people suffering from mental health, homelessness and substance-abuse issues.

“We’re all trained in how to come in peace. So when we approach, we approach in peace,” Barnes says. “It’s about a greeting. It’s about, ‘Hey, how are you? How are you doing? How can I best support you?’”

“And a lot of times, they’re very receptive to it,” she says. “But it takes time. Relationships take time.”

Over roughly two hours that morning, Barnes and Robinson ask about 10 people if they need some help, including several semi-conscious riders slumped over on their seats and an older man near the entrance of the Coliseum station wrapped in a dirty blanket, muttering to himself. All, except Cat, the woman they encountered at San Leandro station, wave them off.

In the last quarter of 2023, CISes reported having more than 4,500 contacts, of which 210 — just under 5% — resulted in verifiable connections to service providers.

“It’s a game of patience. It may be the first contact somebody is ready to seek that help. Sometimes it might be the 20th contact,” says Ja’Son Scott, deputy chief of BART’s nascent Progressive Policing and Community Engagement Bureau, which encompasses the CIS program.

Scott’s bureau was launched in the fall of 2020, just months after George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police sparked nationwide protests for racial justice and police accountability. BART says its new approach, aimed at helping to restore ridership, came in response to mounting requests from passengers for an increased safety presence in the system but with less reliance on armed officers.

Two women in uniform look through an open BART train door.
BART Crisis Intervention Specialists Natalie Robinson (left) and Stephine Barnes speak to passengers on a BART train that’s been stalled on the platform after a man reportedly flung a bag of feces-caked laundry around the first car. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

The initiative has an annual budget of roughly $8 million, and in addition to the 20 CISes, it includes up to 10 “transit ambassadors” who also patrol the system, reporting safety concerns and “biohazards.”

I realize we didn’t have all the tools as police officers to deal with all the issues that you see in BART, and it’s not always necessary for a police officer to do that,” Scott says. “We can’t arrest our way through these problems.”

Outreach vs. enforcement

BART’s social service efforts, however, haven’t always gone smoothly. The agency’s inspector general reported last year that a $350,000 multiyear contract with the Salvation Army to address homelessness resulted in just one unsheltered person entering treatment.

At the same time, BART’s Police Department has ramped up enforcement, reporting a 62% increase in arrests last year while aggressively recruiting to fill vacant positions on its force by offering higher salaries and signing bonuses.

Those developments come as riders say they want to see more sworn officers in the system.

A 2023 Bay Area Council poll found three-fourths of respondents would make that a high priority. Four out of five agreed that people who violate BART’s code of conduct — rules that prohibit smoking, eating, and playing loud music, among other things — should be ejected from the system. And more than two-thirds of respondents said they thought BART should focus exclusively on running a clean, safe and reliable transit operation — while letting other public agencies deal with people in crisis.

Debora Allen, a BART Board director, is among that majority. A staunch supporter of tougher law enforcement within the system, Allen was one of just two board members who voted against forming the Progressive Policing Bureau. And she remains dubious of its benefits.

“Look, no one wants to help people who are down and out and in crisis more than me. I think all of us on that board have the same interest,” she says. But “transit isn’t the place to start social service programs. We have counties and cities who receive hundreds of millions of dollars each year to do this social service work. We should remain focused on transit.”

A Narcan case on someone's belt.
Stephine Barnes and other crisis intervention specialists always carry Narcan, a drug used to reverse opioid overdoses. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

Allen argues that BART is using scarce dollars to deliver services to people inside the system, all but incentivizing them to stay there, while offering little in the way of data to show if the program is actually helping people.

“What I have argued all along is our first line of defense should be to keep those people out of the system,” Allen says, decrying BART’s failure to clamp down on rampant fare evasion. Having them wandering and sometimes even living inside of a transit system with active moving trains all the time is the most dangerous place for them to decide to live.”

‘We are definitely needed’

At Lake Merritt station, Barnes and Robinson are dispatched to a Dublin-Pleasanton-bound train that’s been stalled on the platform after a man reportedly flung a bag of feces-caked laundry around the first car.

So it was all over the train car. They say he wiped it out, but it definitely needs disinfecting,” Robinson says after speaking with the train operator.

They calmly head up the stairs and out of the station in pursuit of the man and spend about five minutes looking for him.

We don’t see him anywhere. We always make an attempt to try to find somebody,” says Robinson, who had hoped to refer him to a shower and laundry truck that serves the area.

To do this job successfully, she says, it’s important to not get too emotionally involved.

“I mean, my personal outlook and training is that, you know, this is their life, their problems, their choices,” Robinson says. “So I can’t dwell necessarily on the feelings that are so associated with seeing so much human misery.”

Two people in dark-blue uniforms talk to a BART train conductor.
BART Crisis Intervention Specialists Natalie Robinson (center) and Stephine Barnes speak to a BART train conductor about a man who had been causing a disturbance on the train. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

But Robinson says the support she and her team offer can be a game changer — if and when people actually accept it. She recounts trying to build a relationship, over months, with a young man she often saw riding the trains in her zone, obviously intoxicated.

“And then one day, he came and asked for us and said he was ready for recovery,” she says. “He needed somebody to dial the phone for him. He needed somebody to talk to his dad for him. He was literally at his lowest point in his life. And you need a hand in those moments.”

She paused, waiting for the whine of a departing train to fade.

“So yeah, we are definitely needed,” she says. “There needs to be a 100 of us, not just 20.”

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