Philadelphia’s regional transit authority will expand its effort to connect people experiencing homelessness and drug users to social services under a $3.6 million plan SEPTA board members approved Thursday to hire more outreach workers.
Contracts with three private agencies allow SEPTA to deploy up to 57 new outreach workers, an eightfold increase from the seven it now has assigned to a pilot program monitoring the Somerset Station in Kensington on the Market-Frankford Line and patrolling with Transit police aboard the El train.
The decision will add outreach specialists to six more stations and double from three to six the number who patrol with police officers.
In addition to helping people in need, the workers’ efforts will provide “a healthier work environment for our employees and make our system more welcoming to our customers,” general manager and CEO Leslie S. Richards said. The transit agency is preparing for a hoped-for increase this fall in ridership, which has plunged during the pandemic.
The coronavirus and attendant capacity restrictions on shelters and rehabs also increased the number of unhoused people and people struggling with drug addiction using SEPTA’s trains and stations as a refuge. Offering help is more productive than “treating it as a law enforcement problem,” Richards said.
SEPTA abruptly closed Somerset Station, which is in the neighborhood at the heart of the city’s opioid-abuse crisis, in March to repair broken elevators and deep clean the transit stop. Employees and riders had been complaining about conditions on the system, particularly on the El.
Neighborhood residents who rely on the train protested the shutdown, which they say came without warning. The episode illustrated the government’s inability to solve deep social problems in Philadelphia that were overwhelming a transportation authority ill-equipped to handle them on its own.
Somerset Station reopened April 5, and four of the seven existing social workers were assigned there to engage with people in the station.
New outreach specialists will be deployed at the Frankford Transportation Center, Somerset Station, Huntington Station, Allegheny Station, and 69th Street Transportation Center on the MFL, spokesperson Andrew Busch said. They also will be assigned to Suburban Station and Jefferson Station, which are hubs for Regional Rail as well as city transit stations.
The social outreach workers will be employed by Merakey Parkside Recovery, Eagle Staffing, and One Day at a Time Inc., SEPTA officials said.
The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.