Alicia Mendivil said she was scared when a guard asked to see her ticket before she sat down in one of Union Station’s art deco armchairs.
The holiday traveler from Yuma, Ariz., didn’t feel much better when she learned the reason: a crackdown on homeless people who officials said had turned the cavernous downtown transportation hub into a shelter.
“You can tell a homeless person from somebody who’s not, can’t you?” said Mendivil, a Christmas wreath brooch winking from her lapel.
She had encountered a pilot program launched Dec. 9 by the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority putting seats in the historic structure off-limits to all but ticketed Amtrak and Metrolink passengers.
Last summer, an average of 135 homeless people a night were gathering inside the terminal, commandeering bathrooms, sprawling across seats and intimidating customers with aggressive panhandling, MTA officials said.
“We were getting a lot of complaints. Our clientele isn’t particularly well-heeled,” said Ken Pratt, director of Los Angeles Union Station Property Management for the MTA. “They were being prevented from using the terminal.”
The move comes as the agency has embarked on a major renovation of the station. Some downtown residents say the seat closure is pushing people with nowhere else to go out into the cold.
“It seems really unfair that they’re not allowed to come in to get warm,” said Clare Holzer, an artist who lives in downtown’s historic core.
They also say the agency is blocking public access to one of the city’s most elegant buildings. The 1939 structure, with its distinctive blend of Spanish revival and Streamline Moderne touches, is on the National Register of Historic Places.
“It continues this trend of telling people not to be in public places,” said Richard Schave, who operates a historic tour business with his wife, Kim Cooper.
Pratt said the MTA tried closing the station from 1 to 4 a.m. so janitors could thoroughly clean. Even so, it became “uninhabitable,” he said, with unsanitary conditions and health threats including bedbugs and scabies.
“We saw people removing insects from themselves and dropping them on chairs next to them,” Pratt said.
The bug problem has since been resolved. The MTA removed 58 seats that were blocking the passenger concourse and is refurbishing the 224 leather and mahogany armchairs that remain, Pratt said.
Painting inside and out is scheduled.
Outreach workers from the L.A. County Housing Services Authority have been visiting regularly to get the homeless people to shelters and other services. Pratt said the pilot program will be modified as needed. A waiting area for bus customers is in the works.
The housing services agency was unable to say how many of the people who sought refuge in the station had found shelter, and Pratt said he does not know where they went.
“I’m rather mystified,” he said.
Don Petrosky Garza, a downtown resident, said Union Station security guards rousted him when he tried to sit down with a sandwich. But that’s not what bothered him.
The problem is that the city has nowhere for the homeless to go, he said.
“Los Angeles is not going to solve this problem by going halfway,” said Garza. “They don’t accomplish much of anything except to make it look pretty.”
Mayor Eric Garcetti will ask the MTA board to discuss the issue at an upcoming meeting, said Jeff Millman, a spokesman for Garcetti.
“We want to make sure there’s a real solution to the issue of homelessness at Union Station,” Millman said.
With daily traffic of up to 60,000 to 75,000 commuters and travelers, the transportation hub can’t solve the homeless problem, Pratt said.
“It’s not an insensitivity; we’re trying to do the right thing,” Pratt said. “It’s a matter of the political will of the community at large.”