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'They Just Need a Safe Place to Be:' How Public Transit Became the Last Safety Net In America

The surge in homelessness on transit systems creates a conundrum for agencies used to the old way of doing things.
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The Hub of Hope is hard to find. The drop-in center for homeless people in Philadelphia’s Center City, run by the venerable nonprofit Project HOME, is underground, more or less directly beneath City Hall, accessible via a specific staircase tucked behind a cafe that takes you underground, around a corner, and down a dank hallway in a sprawling underground tunnel network. There are signs, but only once you get close enough to know where you’re going already.


This is the Hub’s second iteration, a partnership between the city of Philadelphia, Project HOME, and SEPTA, the Philadelphia region’s transit agency. The new, improved Hub of Hope opened in 2018 and is open from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., after which guests either find shelter for the night or return to the streets. Coffee and breakfast are provided by Wawa. The Hub offers showers and laundry facilities, primary medical care, behavioral health care, and a range of other services. 

Candice Player, Project HOME’s vice-president of outreach, told Motherboard during a recent visit to the Hub that the goal is to meet people where they are. If they just need a place to sit and do some laundry and have a shower, they can do that. If they want to meet a case worker or a licensed medical professional, they can do that too. Anyone can come, no questions asked. There are no metal detectors to walk through, no police or armed guards. Guests just need to check their bags at the door. 

“The purpose of programs like the Hub of Hope is to provide a pathway into housing, but also to try to meet people's immediate needs for food, clothing, and shelter,” Player said. “It’s to have a place to be where they're not going to get kicked out.”

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Photo: Aaron Gordon

The Hub of Hope is an answer to an increasingly urgent question for American transit agencies: What should they do about rising rates of homelessness on their systems? The service it provides may sound like a common-sense and obvious part of a holistic solution. And yet, the Hub of Hope is a one-off. No other American transportation agency has anything like it.


In some cities, the homelessness crisis on transit systems is truly life and death. On May 2, a New York subway rider choked a man who had been seen panhandling and acting erratically, killing him. Between January and March, 22 people died on LA Metro, most from overdoses and in areas commonly known as homeless hangouts, according to the Los Angeles Times. Last year, a man who had been drifting in and out of hospitals, mental health facilities, and living on the streets for decades pushed Michelle Go in front of an oncoming train, killing her. Later that year, New York City mayor Eric Adams authorized the involuntary hospitalization of some people during homeless encampment sweeps and mulled a policy of increasing ticketing and summonses for homeless people—an obvious precursor to jailing them since they do not have the money to pay any fines. Many centrist and right-leaning commentators, such as Josh Barro, paint this issue as one that “exposes a key contradiction that leftists need to resolve. Do they care about the provision of high-quality public services? Or is their primary objective to ensure that the coercive force of the state is never used to enforce rules?” The creation and enforcement of stricter rules are increasingly popular policies nationwide, and fail to address the causes of homelessness.


Nevertheless, conservative activists and think-tankers have launched coordinated campaigns to make being homeless a felony, ensuring the homelessness-to-prison pipeline becomes even more streamlined. In April of last year, Tennessee state senator Frank Niceley, in discussing one such bill, made the argument that homeless people should find inspiration in a young man who, for a brief period early in life, “lived on the streets and practiced his oratory and his body language and how to connect with the masses and then went on to lead a life that’s got him into the history books”—evidence that life on the streets is not “a dead end.” He was referring, of course, to Adolf Hitler. Tennessee passed the bill, implicitly recognizing that, generally speaking, the U.S.’s answer to homelessness, inasmuch as it has one, is prison beds or shipping them out of town for someone else to deal with.


Amongst this mess, transit agencies are caught in the middle, tasked with doing something about a problem they had no role in creating and have no way of solving, which is often used as an excuse to dedicate little to no staff or budget to the problem. 

I made the trip to see the Hub of Hope in person because it is the only homeless drop-in center with food, medical, and hygiene facilities on transit property in the country. This is despite the fact that transit agencies across the country are scrambling to figure out what to do about the increase in visibly homeless people on their systems, especially as homelessness becomes a national crisis, spreading to cities that previously didn’t have much of it or increasing to dystopian proportions in cities that have long experienced it. 

There is no debate that visible homelessness on transit systems is a problem. For transit agencies themselves, there is a connection between visible homelessness, riders feeling unsafe, and a drop in ridership, even if the connection between homelessness and crime is statistically unproven. For the homeless themselves, using transit systems as a shelter of last resort is practical in the short term but offers little in the way of permanent solutions. Daniel Cooperman, who has been dubbed “BART’s first-ever homelessness czar,” told Motherboard, “if someone's sleeping on BART, or in a station or under our tracks, they're not going to get any better. There is no recovery, there is no progression towards becoming housed.”


A photo from 2019 shows how BART used to deal with homeless people. Credit: San Francisco Chronicle/Hearst Newspapers via Getty Images / Contributor via Getty

But just because it is a known problem doesn’t mean there is an intelligent, evidence-based public discourse on what to do about it. The fact is that transit agencies have, to varying degrees, been dealing with this question for decades. Paradoxically, many members of the public, politicians, and the political commentariat clamor that transit agencies do something, even though the root cause of homelessness is quite obviously a housing problem and not a transit problem. And that something usually involves the same short-term non-solution that hasn’t worked for decades—ramping up police presence and enforcement at great cost—while ignoring the cheaper and more effective long-term solution of investing in outreach workers, drop-in centers with food and facilities, shelter beds, and supportive housing. 

For this article, I spoke to local and national housing and transportation experts, organizations that work closely with the homeless on a daily basis, and transit agencies around the country. I asked them: What are transit agencies doing about homelessness, and what should they be doing? 

I found near-universal agreement that the old approach of relying on police-based enforcement—creating a code of conduct that bans specific things homeless people do in public, then arresting them for it—is losing favor. Instead, transit agencies have embraced a model of “partnerships” with existing city agencies and nonprofits that tackle homelessness, a move that sounds sensible on its face but is often used as another excuse to continue to invest little or no money in the problem. 


All of this creates a conundrum for transit agencies used to the old way of doing things. As they see it, they’re trapped between the immediate demands of running a clean, safe, and effective transportation service and the causes of the homelessness crisis—a lack of affordable housing coupled with inadequate health care—over which they have no control, and they’re without the funding to grow promising efforts at a scale that would make a difference.

“In a perfect world, there would be a million of us,” said Holly Winge of CapMetro’s community intervention program in Austin, referring to outreach and case workers. “But even in that perfect world, where there’s a whole bunch of community intervention specialists, there’s not enough housing. So we can do the housing assessments, we can get people IDs. They’re still going to be waiting on their waiting lists.”


Liz Hersh, the Director of the Office of Homeless Services for the city of Philadelphia, knows the Hub of Hope is not in an ideal location. In the early 2010s, the first iteration of the Hub of Hope was down the corridor, taking up a 900 square-foot storefront that used to be a salon. It was open in the winter for three mornings a week. The concourse, which serves or connects to the shopping district, convention center, and several historic tourist attractions, was packed with hundreds of homeless people. By the mid-2010s, merchants, business groups, office workers, and transit riders complained to Hersh and anyone else who would listen about the homeless problem. The opioid crisis was at a peak. Something had to be done. But that something couldn’t be near their office, their business, their apartment building.


“Nobody wanted this,” Hersch said of the Hub. They wanted homeless people gone, but not gone near them.

Hersh scouted other locations in the concourse, city buildings, empty schools, empty office buildings. She looked at any empty real estate with about 10,000 square feet within a quarter mile of the concourse. She came up empty.

Then, in 2016, Hersch found an abandoned space that belonged to the police for SEPTA, the city’s transit agency. It had been vacant for perhaps 20 years, although seemingly no one could say how long for sure. “It was unbelievable,” Hersch recalled. “The first time we went in there, it was like they had literally gotten up and left one day. I mean, there were file cabinets and telephone sets unplugged and trash cans full of trash. It was surreal. It was like some kind of dystopian movie.”

But it was big enough. And, importantly, SEPTA itself owned it, or, at least, believed it did; I got conflicting accounts of who actually owned it at the time, a product of the constant territorial disputes between various city agencies and landlords regarding the sprawling concourse. Under the leadership of SEPTA’s then-CEO Jeff Kneuppel, the agency offered to pay approximately $3 million to clean it up. 

Inside, a staff member greets people and checks their bags. There is no security check to pass, and there are no metal detectors or wands. Guests walk down a flight of stairs into the Hub itself, several levels underground. Another staff member asks people what they need and helps them get situated. There’s coffee and sandwiches in the back. A TV plays standard daytime talk shows. The walls have the subway tiling for the old City Hall stop, a reminder of the many iterations this space has gone through, and how it has been transformed over time to fit multiple needs. Motivational posters with messages like “The most important thing about goals is having one” and “Be grateful when things are going your way—Be graceful when they’re not” adorn the walls. 

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Inside the Hub of Hope. Deep underground with no natural light, the space is hardly ideal. But it exists. Photo: Aaron Gordon

It’s all too appropriate that a former SEPTA police station on transit property is now a homeless drop-in center, a territorial handoff that embodies the shift in thinking over decades. Two blocks from the Hub of Hope, on the sixth floor of SEPTA’s headquarters, Ken Divers, the agency’s director of outreach, told me about SEPTA’s new approach from behind his L-shaped desk as the automatic blinds adjusted to the midday sun. 

“My job, SEPTA’s job, is not to solve the problem of homelessness,” Divers said, with the practiced cadence of a man who has said it many times over the last two years. “Our job is to make homelessness on SEPTA rare, brief, and non-recurring, while creating an environment that is clean and safe for our employees and our customers.”

Nationally, homelessness is anything but rare, brief, and non-recurring. Homelessness of all kinds has been rising since 2016, according to the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness. On any given night last year, approximately 582,500 people in the United States were homeless, according to the Housing and Urban Development Homelessness Report. To put this statistic into perspective, if a given night’s homeless population were a city, it would be the nation’s 30th largest, right between Baltimore and Memphis. 


In Philadelphia, on any given night, there are about 4,500 people considered homeless, according to the city’s 2022 point-in-time count. Most of them are in some kind of shelter provided by the city or a nonprofit. About 800 are unsheltered homeless, meaning they are sleeping on the streets, in an underground concourse, in a SEPTA station, or somewhere else that doesn’t provide safe shelter.

This ratio—about 17 percent unsheltered, and all of them individuals without children—is better than the national average, where 40 percent of homeless are unsheltered, a more common occurrence in the western and southern portion of the country where cities don’t have a legal obligation to provide shelter. But unsheltered, chronic homelessness in particular has been increasing, both in Philadelphia and in the U.S. in general, because of rising housing costs and gaps in the nation’s health care system. Some 233,000 people around the country—or one Baton Rouge, Louisiana—sleep on the street, in abandoned buildings, or other places HUD calls “not suitable for human habitation.” In cities around the country, some of them will try to sleep on transit systems. Historically, transit agencies including SEPTA have responded to this in part by removing long, flat benches people could lay down on and replacing them with surfaces to lean against instead, a type of hostile architecture that makes the incorrect assumption that homeless people go to transit stations for the comfortable benches. 


When researching this story, I was surprised to see how rarely public transportation is mentioned in the literature on homelessness, much less studied, because as a transportation reporter, it is a constant point of tension between riders, politicians, and the transit agencies. Big-city transit agencies, particularly ones in East Coast cities with cold winters, have been dealing with the issue since the 1980s, when the modern homelessness crisis began. And transit agencies loom large in the public consciousness regarding homelessness. When people picture homelessness, they may well think of a disheveled person sleeping on a big city subway or bus station or panhandling in or around one. 

“The reality is that people experiencing homelessness often don't have anywhere safe to go at night to sleep or during the day if the weather's bad, or if they just need a safe place to be,” said Jeff Olivet, executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. “And so some people rely on transit systems, particularly subways and buses, simply for a warm, safe place to be out of the elements and out of harm's way.”

This creates an obvious tension for transit systems as customers complain about the presence of homelessness, which can often get intermingled with concerns about open drug use or potentially violent behavior in ways that aren’t easy for transit systems to distinguish. “I think that the open use of drugs on a system is a problem,”  said Chris Van Eyken, director of research and policy at TransitCenter, a non-profit think tank. “It makes people feel uncomfortable, especially if you don’t know quite what to expect from the users on the system, behavior-wise.” Transit agencies, he said, need to walk the line between enforcing drug use laws and not being “rough and abusive” in the process. 


Divers is unapologetic that SEPTA is “a transit company, a business” and that “my business is to move people, not build houses.” But he is not without compassion for the homeless. He has several close relatives who are homeless and he had a short homeless stint living in an abandoned building many decades ago, before starting a career as a SEPTA bus driver. Divers, who has worked for the agency for 29 years, is a SEPTA man, and he arrived at his new homelessness strategy not through some adoration of leftist anti-capitalist theory or defund the police ideology, but through raw practicality. The whiteboard in his office is plastered with statistics, charts, and slogans. He says he looks at what works and what doesn’t, and tries to do more of what is working and less of what isn’t.

It may be difficult for SEPTA riders—where homelessness and drug use is still very much pervasive and recurring—to believe, but the agency has been recognized within the country’s transit landscape as one of the most effective agencies on dealing with homelessness. In 2022, SEPTA won the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) Innovation Award for SCOPE, which stands for Safety, Cleaning, Ownership, Partnership and Engagement (the transit world is a cacophony of acronyms). When I sat down in Divers’ office, he played SCOPE’s promotional video and handed me SCOPE in printed booklet form as soon as I sat in my chair, visibly proud of the program he put together.


Cops, he found, were effective at getting homeless people out of stations, maybe even arresting them, but not at keeping them out. Cops paired with outreach workers, an increasingly common approach around the country, were more effective. But Divers prefers deploying two outreach workers with no cops, because they have a better chance at building a constructive relationship. He says 70 percent of the time outreach workers alone can get homeless people out of stations. From January through March this year, 21 percent of “engagements” between SEPTA outreach teams and homeless in the system resulted in a referral to services such as mental health treatment, drug and alcohol treatment, shelters, or other social services, according to figures provided by SEPTA.

This is where the partnerships with city agencies, nonprofits, hospitals, universities, and more come in. Divers is adamant that SEPTA is not trying to end homelessness, and just wants homelessness out of the system. But after decades of SEPTA and other transit agencies relying primarily on enforcement, he has come to the conclusion that the only way to get homelessness out of SEPTA is to help people find housing. He calls getting people into supportive services, through SEPTA’s partners, a “secondary benefit” of the SCOPE program. As a result, places like the Hub of Hope are “a very crucial partner with us,” Divers said.

Beneath all the corporatese and acronyms, what Divers is describing is a simple, long-recognized concept. One of the few studies on transit agencies and homelessness was a 2016 Transportation Research Board paper which surveyed 55 transit agencies around the country. The paper is rich in statistical insight regarding attitudes and approaches towards homeless people. But the entire paper can be more or less summarized in a single graphic it calls “the trajectory of transit agency responses and activity” regarding homeless people. The graphic is an arrow moving from left to right with four dots signifying a change in mindset at the transit agency. The four stops, in order, are: “Not our problem”, “Riders are unhappy - do something!”, “Enforcement”, and finally, “Partnerships AND Enforcement.”

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Credit: Transportation Research Board

This trajectory was reflected by the three transit agencies I interviewed. Of the six agencies I contacted who are known to be thinking beyond enforcement on transit issues, BART in Oakland/San Francisco, CapMetro in Austin, and SEPTA agreed to talk to me for the story. All of the people I spoke to at those agencies started in their roles of homeless outreach since the pandemic began. All acknowledged that their respective agencies were previously too focused on using the police to clear out homeless people in the past without having much, if any, ability to connect them to services or shelter. All of them acknowledged that approach was expensive, wasteful, and unproductive.

This tracks other findings in housing research that concludes, in the words of the Urban Institute, “Police don’t solve homelessness, they only move it around—to other neighborhoods, jails, and emergency rooms—rather than connecting people with the housing and services they need.” One study found it cost between $1,600 and $6,200 per homeless person to clear homeless encampments using police force, totalling millions of dollars per city per year. 

But simple concepts can sometimes be the most difficult to execute. The flip side of the fact that SEPTA’s outreach teams made referrals to social services 21 percent of the time is they didn’t 79 percent of the time. The vast majority of the time, homeless people are simply kicked out of SEPTA’s system with nowhere else to go.


This aligns with what Christine Zacchei, a behavioral health consultant at the Hub of Hope, told me about the difficulties homeless people experience in getting services. They’ll get referred to the hospital only for doctors to dismiss them as untreatable. Busy ER doctors wonder why they should spend time treating homeless people who they believe won’t commit to follow-ups or take medication. It is common for homeless people to have medications stolen. If they have meds that need to be refrigerated, like insulin, they have no way to do so (unless they’ve come to the Hub of Hope, which keeps a mini-fridge for such medications for patients). Many don’t have phones with plans or internet access, which makes it difficult to schedule, attend, or keep telehealth appointments. Many overnight shelters have bed bugs, poor hygiene, and draconian rules that result in people getting banned for reasons they don’t understand. Or they run into Kafkaesque bureaucratic Catch-22s in which they need an ID to apply for some program, but need another document to get the ID, but need a different kind of document to get it and need an ID to get that document. So when a homeless person sees an outreach worker coming by, they often see just another representative of this tangle of bureaucracies that shame them for not getting their life together while putting up barriers that prevent them from doing it.


It can also be hard for agencies themselves to manage all these partnerships and coordinate between the different areas they serve in a constructive manner. Cooperman, BART’s homelessness czar, cannot track long-term outcomes for the people put into local services. BART serves five counties, each with its own homeless services and outreach programs. And while all five counties use the same database program, Cooperman said, they are individualized and do not talk to one other. So a person getting help in one county is unknown to the others. BART is hardly alone. Many transit agencies are state or regional agencies that cross city and county lines and therefore have the same issue.

Still, some agencies define success more by what doesn’t happen than what does. As Brian Robinson of Capmetro told me, “Any time we can send an ambassador, instead of a gun and badge to these common calls that we receive, is successful in itself.”


About once a month, a group of transit employees from around the country who specialize on homelessness issues meet to discuss the problems they face and solutions they’ve found. It doesn’t have an official name, but Winge of Austin’s CapMetro called it the Transit and Vulnerable Populations Working Group. Cooperman from BART attends, as do people from Denver’s RTD, Portland’s TriMet, and LA Metro, among others.

Ten years ago, it would have been difficult to convene such a meeting. According to the 2016 study, only seven agencies, or 16 percent of those surveyed, had dedicated staff “to interact with people who are homeless,” to say nothing of professional social workers on staff coordinating homeless outreach, despite 91 percent of agencies reporting “people who are homeless” as an issue on their systems. 

As much as transit agencies are trumpeting their new, more enlightened approaches to homelessness on their systems, the change has been limited and slow. The 2016 study authors noted that “even more than 20 years ago, transit agencies had discovered the benefits of partnerships to address homelessness in transit facilities,” the same approach that is now central to so many agency responses. As is the case with so many other crises that periodically attract public attention, the high turnover rate at public agencies—ones responsible for transit, in this case—means that people forget what worked and what didn’t, institutional knowledge is lost, and the next people tasked with doing something have to build it all back up again.

Even large transit agencies with a history of homelessness often have few full-time staffers dedicated to the issue. Winge, who started at CapMetro in 2021, has one other community intervention specialist on staff and is close to hiring a third. When I asked Cooperman at BART how many people he has on his team, he chuckled. “Well, you’re talking to my full team,” he said. “It’s me.”

This is in sharp contrast to the resources transit agencies allocate for their own dedicated police forces. For example, SEPTA’s proposed budget for 2024 includes $33.4 million to staff the 263-member police department, whereas its SCOPE plan included increasing the number of outreach workers—who are contractors with third party firms, not employees—to “over 50” from just seven. In fact, it is usually difficult to find out how much transit agencies spend on homeless-related initiatives, because it’s too little to bother separating out as a line item in publicly-available budgets. The 2016 survey of transit agencies found only 14 percent had even defined the “budget impacts” related to homelessness, a lower percentage than respondents who simply didn’t know if they did or not. It is typical for transit agencies to have more job vacancies in their police departments than total headcount for homelessness outreach and support. Cooperman said funding is his biggest challenge, especially with rising costs of living in the Bay Area making it difficult to provide attractive salaries for outreach workers. He would love to have enough money to staff every station with two outreach workers around the clock, but that would cost tens of millions of dollars each year (BART spent $94 million on its police department in 2022). BART, like other transit agencies, isn’t eligible for federal homelessness funding. 

When SEPTA decided to spend about $3 million to launch the Hub of Hope, it was both a lot of money for a homelessness initiative at the time and also a rounding error of SEPTA’s $1.36 billion operating budget in 2016. Still, when I asked Hersh, Philadelphia’s director of homeless services, if it was worth the money, she said, “Oh my God. Absolutely.”

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The Hub of Hope's supply room where people can get amenity kits and clean clothes. The subway rumbles just overhead every few minutes. Photo: Aaron Gordon

On any given day over the last nine months, the Hub of Hope averages 135 daily visits, according to statistics provided by Project HOME, ranging from a low of 63 to a high of 228. Over those nine months, it has provided a total of 4,557 showers, done 1,330 loads of laundry, served 20,793 meals, and placed 315 individuals in housing, but mostly temporary night-by-night shelters. There aren’t any beds available for the rest.

The question for transit agencies, its partners in the homelessness crisis, and riders concerned about the problem is less about what policies transit agencies will adopt and more about how much money they will have—or have access to—to enact those policies. As noteworthy as CapMetro’s shift away from policing and towards social outreach has been, Winge said they have only managed to place four people in supportive housing. SEPTA doesn’t report similar statistics, because, as Divers put it, “We measure our success by how many people we were able to engage and remove off the system.”

Back at the Hub, I asked Player, the vice president of outreach, what their plans are in the future. She said one of the main goals is to expand the laundry and shower services, which are the most popular, and bring back dental services and a barber, which they used to have pre-Covid. 

“We all just feel better whenever we’ve had a shower, or some clean clothes, or a haircut,” she said. “We just feel able to face the day, and then you take the next step and work on, you know, whatever it is.”