The list of ways in which the Regional Transportation District discriminates against people experiencing poverty keeps growing.
Members of its board of directors used the coronavirus pandemic as an excuse to quickly push through new rules that effectively give RTD’s fast-growing security forces a blank check to boot out people experiencing homelessness. Recently, they approved the new restrictions despite a federal regulation requiring RTD to serve people of all income levels equally.
RTD also burdens the poor with some of the highest fares in the country. Its new discount program aims to lower prices for the 78,000 it hopes to enroll by the end of the year. But only a small fraction will sign up successfully because the process is complicated. And a growing heap of RTD policies is designed to sweep away the homeless.
Transit facilities are not homeless shelters. But like libraries and parks, they often provide a place for people who have nowhere else to go. And as RTD scatters the homeless, many are likely to crowd into the few areas where they are still allowed during the lockdown, possibly exacerbating this public health crisis.
The poor feel especially unwelcome at Union Station’s Great Hall. Since it reopened in 2014 — after public funds purchased and remodeled it — the space has been touted as “Denver’s living room.”
But Jerry Burton, who has experienced homelessness and is now an activist with the group Homeless Out Loud, says he has never felt welcome. “People who have money can use that space as a living room,” he says. “But if you dress poorly, if you look a certain way, if you act a certain way, you are not allowed.”
RTD leased the building to Union Station Associates, a group of private companies that in February put up signs indicating it could throw out anyone who does not purchase something from one of its upscale vendors. In its lease, RTD did not have to grant such power.
“You should not have a structure that creates private spaces in a public building,” says Denise Maes, Public Policy Director at the ACLU of Colorado.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, RTD also adopted an extreme and unreasonable emergency rule. It limits the time people can spend inside Civic Center Station and the Union Station bus concourse to 10 minutes. The regulation disproportionately targets the homeless, but it affects everyone.
“With our reduced services, many people may be waiting more than 10 minutes,” says Shontel Lewis, an elected board member who represents parts of Denver, Aurora and Adams County.
Beyond the emergency rules, a majority of RTD’s directors rushed through an April 21 update to its broader code of conduct. The regulations list violations in such expansive terms they could include nearly anything people do while waiting for or riding transit, including dozing off. To justify the hasty move, the agency pointed to rising calls to police.
RTD’s transit police reported 1,696 incidents at the Union Station bus concourse last year, roughly five per day. The number is up 30 percent over the year before, but a dramatic boost in policing may be responsible for the growing activity. “Any area that is over-policed is going to find more issues,” says Maes.
RTD spent more than $35 million on safety and security last year, a 37 percent increase since 2017. The funding supports the new N-Line commuter train, say officials. But for one rail line, the rise is substantial—especially for one that has not yet opened.
RTD may have gone too far in ramping up its security forces. The Denver Police Department, for example, employs approximately 1,600 officers. RTD now has around 800. Of those, 13 are transit police. RTD also draws on 260 off-duty officers from local police departments. But most of the agency’s security forces, more than 600 armed security guards, are provided through a $22 million annual contract with the private firm Allied Universal.
“If you’re over-policing an area, you’re bound to have unfortunate interactions that maybe don’t need to happen at all,” says Maes.
One of those interactions happened on April 20, 2018. A new lawsuit alleges that four security officers were involved in an incident where Denver artist Raverro Stinnett was beaten unconscious. He was just waiting for a train but ended up the victim of a bashing that left him with permanent brain damage. The guards failed to report the attack. One considered it business as usual.