Public transit and homelessness

by Blankets for T.O. on June 17th, 2022

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

TTC subway train enters a station
A train pulls into Spadina Station, an interchange station in Toronto's subway network. (Photo by Jed Dela Cruz).

What role does public transit play in Toronto? We all know that effective public transit infrastructure is key to big cities by providing sustainable, efficient, and affordable transportation, especially to those whose lives would otherwise be overburdened with the high costs of car ownership. Fortunately, transit in Toronto consistently ranks highly among North American cities, and the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) was even ranked the top North American transit agency in 2017 [1]. In a 2021 petition, TTC operators argued that it should do more to address the rise in homelessness over recent years [2], proposing many effective solutions. In this short article, we give an overview of the role of public transit for homeless individuals. Additionally, we look into how other North American transit agencies have handled homelessness on their systems.

Among Toronto’s homeless population, one study found that public transit is ranked as one of the most common modes of transportation reported in surveys, second only to walking and just above cycling [3]. Among the most common reasons for trips reported visiting friends or family, accessing medical care, going to food pantries, commuting to and from shelters, and going for job searches and interviews [3,4]. The necessity of transport means that shelters benefit immensely from having good transit access. The need to assess and address the needs of this community, and other demographics suffering from poverty, has been recognized by numerous transit agencies and municipal departments. However, proper assessment of this group with traditional methods, such as surveys and record-keeping, proves uniquely difficult since some may lack a dedicated phone number or permanent address, and may move around numerous shelters or social services [5]. In surveys across American transit agencies, 73% believed that ridership is impacted by homelessness and 68% acknowledged responsibility in working with the homeless population [6]. Among the agencies surveyed, many cited a lack of funding for addressing the relevant issues appropriately [6]. 

With regards to transit affordability, recommendations to government institutions to promote inclusiveness and equal opportunity have included the subsidization of fares, such as the one put forth in Minnesota [7]. Transit agencies in Seattle, Portland, and San Francisco offer discount fares to unhoused passengers [8]. In Toronto, studies and proposals in 2014-2015 by the city council resulted in the creation of the Fair Pass Transit Discount Program [9]. Rolled out in 2018, it provides discounts to fares for eligible groups, including those on Ontario Works (OW) or living in subsidized housing [9]. When Blankets for T.O. talked with shelters and homeless individuals on the street about what essential items are in need, public transit fares have come up a few times as helpful items for donation. In response, we gave out Presto fare cards during a donation run last year in downtown Toronto.

As we look across various transit agencies, we should note how each agency interacts with the homeless community, especially when individuals take up temporary residence in public transit spaces. In this dialogue, it is important to acknowledge that homeless individuals are not a monolithic group, as each will be varying personal challenges and unique sets of circumstances with regards to their financial situation, employment status, physical and mental health, and so forth. Thus, homeless individuals will utilize public transport infrastructure in different ways and would benefit from different methods of outreach. Studies in the UK, Germany and the United States have identified that a sizable portion of homeless individuals spend their nights on buses and trains, with many citing disagreement with shelter guidelines or lack of shelter availability [6]. If you are a Toronto resident, you may have seen homeless individuals resting in subway train carriages or in station corridors. Different agencies have tackled these occurrences differently. When we review approaches across North America, approaches can generally be categorized into punitive and outreach responses [6]. Punitive measures to homelessness on transit may involve a transit agency instructing workers to perform occasional sweeps to remove homeless individuals from transit areas or to order homeless individuals off of vehicles once they have reached the final stop [6]. These are made possible by the creation of local ordinances which may prohibit loitering and sleeping at transit stations, thus allowing authorities to give fines, make arrests and confiscate property [6]. To the same effect, agencies may also employ “hostile architecture” by deliberately designing seats and station surfaces to be uncomfortable to sleep on [6]. Critics argue that these approaches merely displace homelessness to other places by unfairly criminalizing and avoiding efforts to resolve it [6]. 

Picture of New York subway platform
A photo in the New York City subway system, which is run by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA). Homelessness outreach groups are present at some terminal stations. (Photo by Mitchell Trotter)

Not all measures are of a punitive nature, for there are outreach programs in place in various systems. In New York City, the transit authority has allowed city services to organize shuttles that bring homeless individuals from subway line termini to local shelters [8]. Additionally, trained outreach workers from local nonprofits may be present at these stations, enabling them to quickly set up the appropriate services and accommodations at the station instead of the shelter [8]. In Denver, social workers and clinicians accompany security staff when transit police identify riders in need [8]. A review of approaches across American transit agencies suggests that those better able to separate enforcement and outreach activities achieve better outcomes [8]. These approaches are similar to those proposed by the aforementioned petition by TTC operators [2,10]. That petition supports the establishment of mobile response teams for harm reduction and overdose prevention, regular patrol of TTC vehicles by social outreach workers, and introduction of crisis workers to educate TTC operators on how to handle interactions with the homeless community [10]. The petition has gained over 1000 signatures on change.org.

Public transit in Toronto, just like in any other city, will remain an integral part of our local communities by offering accessible, reliable and sustainable mobility. It works to provide residents with equal access to education, employment, and city services. All of these are key to promoting equal opportunity and addressing long-standing socioeconomic inequities. Investments into public transit not only help homeless communities, but also net huge benefits for youth, new residents, immigrants, refugees, low-income households, and individuals with disabilities. We all benefit from world-class transit service in Toronto and thus we should all work to advocate for these groups in need. 

References

  1. Toronto Transit Commission. (2017). TTC named North America’s best transit agency for 2017. https://www.ttc.ca/news/2017/June/TTC-named-North-Americas-best-transit-agency-for-2017

  2. Draaisma, M. (2021). TTC drivers launch petition to help unhoused people seeking shelter on transit system. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/ttc-operators-petition-homelessness-unhoused-people-government-help-1.5939862

  3. Hui, V. C. W. (2015). Role of urban transportation through the lens of homeless individuals: A case study of the city of Toronto. University of Toronto (Canada).

  4. Murphy, E. R. (2019). Transportation and homelessness: A systematic review. Journal of Social Distress and the Homeless, 28(2), 96-105.

  5. Jocoy, C. L., & Del Casino Jr, V. J. (2010). Homelessness, travel behavior, and the politics of transportation mobilities in Long Beach, California. Environment and Planning A, 42(8), 1943-1963.

  6. Ding, H., Loukaitou-Sideris, A., & Wasserman, J. L. (2022). Homelessness on public transit: A review of problems and responses. Transport Reviews, 42(2), 134-156.

  7. Fan, Y., Guthrie, A., Van Dort, L., & Baas, G. (2019). Advancing Transportation Equity: Research and Practice.

  8. Loukaitou-Sideris, A., Wasserman, J. L., Caro, R., & Ding, H. (2021). Homelessness in Transit Environments Volume II: Transit Agency Strategies and Responses.

  9. City of Toronto. (2022). Fair Pass Transit Discount Program. https://www.toronto.ca/community-people/employment-social-support/support-for-people-in-financial-need/assistance-through-ontario-works/transit-discount/

  10. Cappadocia, C. (2021). “The Homelessness Epidemic and Public Transit: TTC Operators Demand a Systematic Solution to a Systemic Problem!”. https://www.change.org/p/toronto-city-council-transit-and-mental-health

Photos in this article were from: Jed Dela Cruz on Unsplash (https://unsplash.com/photos/hjXWgwzOcAI) and Mitchell Trotter on Unsplash (https://unsplash.com/photos/t_apIvhl_jg)


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