The word “homelessness” elicits compassion, pity, concern and bewilderment. Whether it’s panhandling along freeway offramps or individuals congregating near areas that provide services, we’ve seen it in our communities or in the local press. In recent years, the number of people categorized as PEH – Persons Experiencing Homelessness – has exploded.
For more than 150 years, Union Pacific has owned a ribbon of property that, in many cases, was a driving force in establishing communities that have evolved into urban landscapes. While many communities are dealing with unhoused residents, the crisis is acute on the West Coast, where weather is less challenging than other parts of the country. Railroad properties generally are not fenced and appear as “open space” for those seeking shelter out of public view.
As our company’s Southern California Public Affairs officer, I began to see an increase in complaints over the past few years from residents, business and local government about homeless individuals illegally occupying our property.
As part of our response, our contracted crews would let individuals know they were trespassing on private property and could not stay or camp. As we cleared our property, we understood there was a high likelihood it would be reinhabited within days, and sometimes within hours. While trespassing on railroad property isn’t a new issue, larger encampments raised concerns about safety and security for both our own staff and neighboring communities.
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Recent court decisions and laws have decriminalized homelessness. While some homeless are people who have suffered insurmountable financial challenges, others are people released from prisons, drug dependent or have mental health issues.
As the situation worsened, UP was fortunate to learn about an organization called City Net. Located in Orange County, Los Angeles County, Riverside County, Santa Barbara County and other parts of Southern California, City Net addresses homelessness through the coordination of community efforts and activities.
The organization provides direct street outreach to sometimes very challenged individuals, but their approach is with respect and dignity to the individuals they serve. Does everyone take advantage of the service? No, but we need to focus on those we can help. This service is free to anyone who wants to engage with our team. While some are not ready to take that step, others are tired of living on the street and are looking for stability in their lives.
Another cause for hope is Be Well Orange County, a community-wide strategy and effort to create a system of care for mental illness. In coordination with existing service providers, hospitals, emergency responders, law enforcement and local government, Be Well recently established its first Center in Orange County.
In the face of huge challenges associated with drug dependency and mental illness, this program gives me hope. Safe shelters that include immediate, transitional and longer-term housing and services, is a much better option than having people housed in our prisons or taken to emergency rooms that may not be equipped to help.
Union Pacific is proud to work with both these organizations.
Each jurisdiction is different, and one size does not fit all, but if we can work within our existing infrastructure to broaden the conversation between all stakeholders, I believe we can reduce the number of homeless in our communities. I am hopeful that in my lifetime I will see this crisis find a path forward to improve the lives of those afflicted with mental illness and drug addiction.
UP’s approach is in its second year. We continue to work with organizations and coordinate with local governments, regional organizations, state government and others that share our goal in lessening the population along areas that are not safe for them to shelter, whether it’s a railroad track or a freeway.