Beginning this week, the 11-mile Green Line light-rail train between downtown St. Paul and Minneapolis will be shut down between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m. on weekdays. Those hours had become peak times for train cars to serve as moving, overnight shelters for the homeless — many of whom were still sleeping as morning commuters came on board.
Cutting all-night service was a sensible move by Metro Transit. It allows time for train maintenance without riders on board but also discourages those who would use the trains for sleep because they won’t be able to ride uninterrupted through the night. So-called homeless light-rail “sleepers” often take up several seats at a time and test the patience of other riders concerned about safety and cleanliness.
Regional officials and taxpayers have made a substantial investment in the light-rail system, and there are expansion plans. The system has been sold as an efficient and safe way to travel to work, school, the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport and other Twin Cities locations. For example, Green Line service to and from the University of Minnesota has been touted as a major amenity and used to attract prospective students to the U. It’s imperative that light-rail trains and platforms not become places that residents and visitors are afraid to use.
While changing hours of service should help commuters and other users feel safer, homelessness will remain a problem. The homeless need to have other temporary shelter where they can be safe and can connect to the long-term help they need, in some cases including mental health services.
A recent Minneapolis Police Department report said trains running between the two core cities and the Mall of America house a moving, homeless camp of at least 180 to 275 people most nights and can grow to more than 400 during winter.
“Homeless people are effectively using our transit system as a homeless shelter,” Jonathan Weinhagen, president and CEO of the Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce, told the Star Tribune. “That’s not what the system was designed to do.”
To help those riders, Metro Transit formed a Homeless Action Team to make connections and build trust. Met Transit officers are working with the Metropolitan Council’s Housing and Redevelopment Authority (HRA), other law enforcement agencies, shelters and social service agencies in what is believed to be a unique collaborative effort in public transit circles.
According to the Met Transit website, the HRA has helped around 70 families find or begin searching for apartments since Jan. 1. The families have largely been referred by Metro Transit police officers who work overnight on light-rail trains and platforms. Eligible families may be able to find housing with rents partly subsidized through a federal program. That assistance is limited, however, and more funding is needed.
The HRA’s efforts are laudable, and there are some success stories. But more services are needed, especially for the chronically homeless and those with physical and mental illness issues. Additional programs are also needed to offer wraparound services that include job search and training help.
Once their lives are back on track, the formerly homeless can ride the rails for the same reasons most passengers do — and not for overnight shelter.