City taking steps to address problems caused by homeless people on buses, LRT trains
'Folks who have no place to call home have found a warm place to be on our transit system'
The City of Edmonton says it is taking steps to address the growing problem of homeless people spending hours riding buses and LRT trains during the COVID-19 pandemic.
"It involves great numbers of vulnerable population or people using the transit system as a place to spend the rest of their day," David Aitken, chair of the city's COVID-19 task team, told a news conference Thursday.
"We were also seeing great numbers of people who were riding the transit system for long periods of time and showing disruptive behaviour.
"Together these incidences are raising some public concerns among transit users, operators and city leadership."
More security patrols, cleaning
To address what Aitken called "an emerging issue," city officials have decided to add more security patrols at key locations.
Staff are being redeployed to clean buses and trains. LRT trains are being cleaned each time they reach the end of the line.
Also, a new shuttle service between the overnight shelter at the Kinsmen Centre and the day-use shelter at the EXPO Centre will start Friday morning.
Because of the pandemic, it is currently free to ride buses and LRT trains in Edmonton. Ridership has fallen off dramatically and service schedules have been reduced.
At the same time, vulnerable populations have few options to find shelter, and for youth to find social outlets, Aitken said.
Recreation facilities, libraries and shopping malls have closed or are closing, and Edmonton has been seeing some unusually cold weather.
Despite the availability of shelters, some homeless people aren't comfortable with them or are choosing not to use them, Aitken said.
The issue was brought to the attention of the task team on Wednesday morning by Eddie Robar, branch manager of Edmonton Transit Service.
At Thursday's news conference, Robar drew a distinction between "non-destination" riders on buses and train and those who need to get to specific places, such as work.
"Since the pandemic, we've seen travel patterns, ridership demand change in a way that we haven't experienced before," Robar said.
'Only travel when you need to'
"The important reminder for everyone right now is, please only travel when you need to. Stay off the buses unless it's an essential trip for yourself or to work or you need to get groceries," Robar said.
"This service is really there ... is for those who truly need that service as a lifeline in the city today. We ask everyone who isn't taking essential trips to please stay home."
Jackie Foord, branch manager of social development with the city, said the city is seeing a combination of challenging circumstances.
"Folks who have no place to call home have found a warm place to be on our transit system," Foord said.
"Physical distancing guidelines to prevent the spread of COVID-19 have limited the number of community spaces for people experiencing homelessness," she said.
Foord said that while the day drop-in shelter at the EXPO Centre is seeing as many as 600 people per day, a February count showed that as many as 1,900 Edmontonians were experiencing homelessness.
On any given night, about 500 homeless people sleep outdoors, she said.
'Spirit of lawlessness,' union president says
Steve Bradshaw, president of Amalgamated Transit Union local 569, said operators are finding "a general spirit of lawlessness" on trains and buses.
"There are gangs, there are people threatening," Bradshaw said in an interview Thursday.
"Somebody got off a bus the other day and pointed what appeared to be a toy gun at an operator — still a very disconcerting action for the guy sitting in the driver seat."
Bradshaw said that late into the night and into the early morning hours, operators are seeing "partying" going on. In one instance, an LRT operator saw a group of people passing around a bottle of whisky, he said.
"There's an increase of aggressiveness, people are threatened ... I've got some horror stories of how operators are threatened and how afraid they are at times."
With files from Natasha Riebe