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Union Station eases policy on homeless people sitting in terminal

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Officials are easing up on a controversial policy to keep homeless people from congregating and sleeping in Los Angeles' historic Union Station, reopening 30% of the terminal seating to the general public, a transportation official said Thursday.

Seating in the waiting room had been placed off-limits in December to all but ticketed Amtrak and Metrolink passengers after hundreds of homeless people sought refuge in the cavernous Art Moderne lobby over the fall and early winter.

The seating should be partially reopened by February, Ken Pratt, director of Union Station property management, said during a break in a meeting of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority construction committee.

"We understand people have problems and we want to be sensitive to them," said Arthur Leahy, MTA's chief executive officer. "The homeless ride our buses and trains....They are welcome anytime."

Critics had questioned whether station officials were thrusting society's most vulnerable into the cold with nowhere to go. Pratt said the station will also be closing its patios from 1 a.m. to 4 a.m.

The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority conducted weeks of intensive outreach to link the squatters to shelter and medical and mental health aid but encountered resistance, Pratt said.

"We are getting some traction, but it's going to be a long road," he told the construction committee.

The homeless agency, in a written report, said teams encountered 1,071 homeless people at the station over a three-month period ending Jan. 13, placing 51 in shelters, 15 in substance abuse programs and three in motels. 

The homeless ranks included 103 men who had been released from jail days before, the report said. Jeanette Rowe, the agency's homeless emergency response team director, said many reported that they had been misinformed they could obtain bus tokens or other tickets home in the station.

Several women were fleeing domestic abuse, some with children in tow.

One woman attempting to return to her home state "was running so hard she didn't even have shoes,"  Rowe said outside the meeting. The team found shoes for her and placed her in a motel until she could catch her train on Christmas Day, she added.

Board member Jackie Dupont-Walker questioned whether the expulsion  pushed homeless people from place to place. Rowe said a homeless task force is also trying to link homeless people to services around Olvera Street, in Father Serra Park and as far west as Spring Street and Grand Avenue south of Cesar E. Chavez Avenue.

Downtown residents had also protested that the seating restrictions excluded architecture buffs and tourists, and dislodged friends and family  waiting to pick up passengers.

The MTA, which took ownership of the terminal in 2010, has begun restoring the building, and plans a major expansion of restaurants and other amenities and further development of the station property.

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Twitter: @geholland

gale.holland@latimes.com

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