Social workers are riding the MetroLink to help people in crisis
Editor’s note: This story was originally published by the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.
While waiting to board an eastbound train at the 5th & Missouri MetroLink Station, Emily Schwaegel sparks up a conversation with a man waiting for the train. It isn’t the first conversation she’s had with a random stranger this morning, and won’t be the last.
Dressed in jeans and a collared shirt, she blends easily with others at the stop as she chit-chats with the man about himself. He is a veteran without a home, down on his luck and looking for a job.
As the two take a seat on a bench at the station, Schwaegel begins dialing her cell phone in hopes of landing the man a lead on a job before his train arrives. She gives the man her contact information as he departs.
Interactions like that have been a daily occurrence for Schwaegel since a new pilot program was launched by the St. Clair County Transit District that is designed to identify people in crisis and find them help.
Earlier this year the county transit system invested nearly $200,000 in a partnership with Chestnut Health Systems, a Granite City-based behavioral and human services provider, to help address “problematic behavior” on the MetroLink.
The program dispatches mental health advisors, like Schwaegel, to ride the buses and light rail cars in the metro-east with individuals who show symptoms of mental illness, may be without a home, might be intoxicated or under the influence of something else, or who may just need a helping hand.
St. Clair County Transit District Director Ken Sharkey said the program is one of the first of its kind in the country. The idea, he said, came from what he has personally observed while riding the MetroLink.
“I’d see people who look homeless or were struggling with mental illness or addiction and I’m always curious about what’s going on with people,” Sharkey said. “I thought there’s gotta be a way to somehow have a conversation or engage with people on the system.”
Sharkey said the program takes pressure off MetroLink security and local law enforcement by allowing Chestnut staff to handle less serious behaviors, probe for an underlying cause and find them help.
“Sometimes police officers are tasked to do too many things and this is just an area where we can take this off their shoulders and let them focus on more serious behavior that’s on the system,” Sharkey said. “We’re basically trying to supplement and augment what the sheriffs and the metro security does on the system.”
The operative word, Sharkey said, is “augment.”
Police reform measures in some states have included proposals to reallocate funding for law enforcement to pay for mental health services similar to those being offered by St. Clair County Transit and Chestnut Health Systems. That idea gained momentum in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death at the hands of a police officer and an extraordinary move in Minneapolis to “defund” the police.
Sharkey said that may work in some places, but not on public transit, where security has been an issue for years.
“We have this whole national dialogue about defunding the police, and I think that’s the wrong way to go especially for transit service,” he said. “Police need to be there and they need to be trained and equipped and Chestnut Health Services can relieve them or augment them of some of the things they have to do on the system.”
Security has been a long-standing issue on MetroLink. Taulby Roach, President and CEO of Bi-State Development, which operates MetroLink, described updated measures adopted along its routes as a “complete renovation” of existing security and safety procedures.
He said the St. Clair County Sheriff’s Department was heavily involved in the planning of the program and officials with the department were excited by the prospect of Chestnut’s services.
The program with Chestnut Health Services is a way to further aid the push to make the MetroLink a more comfortable place for anyone who can use the service, Sharkey said.
Engaging with MetroLink riders
Schwaegel rides the system daily alongside Transit Security Specialist Sherri Coleman, engaging with riders in ways both big and small. Sometimes her interactions are as simple as asking if someone sleeping on the train is OK, while others can occupy a large portion of their day.
Schwaegel has a knack for identifying people who may be in need of aid, jumping on and off the train when she sees someone who may be in need. At each stop, she quickly pops her head out of the doors or changes train cars, scanning the area for anyone she may be able to engage with on the train or around the many MetroLink stops along the way.
As the train moves, she keeps a watchful eye on passengers and on anyone in the area near stops. She’s familiar with many of the regulars, even joking with some as they pass by.
Identifying people in need of aid is a difficult part of the job, Schwaegel said. Sometimes there are clear red flags. People’s shoes can be a giveaway, she said, or someone who is sleeping on the train. Sometimes it’s not so easy to tell.
She says it’s important that she meets people “where they are,” to keep her engagements casual and avoid the “old school approach.”
“There is more of a proactive approach nowadays, most of law enforcement are certified and trained in crisis intervention, but there’s still that stigma because they are uniformed officers and what they are able to do (to help) is pretty limited,” Schwaegel said. “The old school approach is usually just to arrest the rider and take them to jail or make them leave the property, and that’s not really solving the issue.”
Chestnut staff members don’t wear uniforms for fear that they would deter riders from accepting assistance. Schwaegel says her jeans and a collared shirt allow her to blend in with other riders.
“Having somebody who’s dressed a little more casual has more of a softer approach,” she said. “(We) can sit down and deescalate a situation, try to identify the issues, and link them to necessary services, that way law enforcement can be utilized a little more properly in other situations.”
Police work for the 21st century
Local police say Schwaegel and the other social workers are making life easier for the county deputies who patrol the transit system.
St. Clair County Sheriff’s Department Lt. Thomas Peters, commander of the department’s MetroLink patrols, said the mental health advisors are making his squad’s day-to-day work easier by providing more effective tools and resources to handle individuals in crisis.
Peters says mental health crisises and homelessness among riders present persistent issues along the system, especially during he cold, winter months. Those issues are not easily resolved by police officers who are often pressed to address more immediate security and public safety issues.
“They have much more time and the background for counseling,” Peters said. “We’re going call-to-call a lot, but they can sit down with these people and find out what they need and what can benefit them.
“They’re much more in tune with counseling.”
Swansea Police Chief Stephen Johnson sees the new MetroLink program as an example of a much-needed shift in policing. After meeting with the Chestnut Health Services team earlier this month to discuss how his department could partner with the program, he said more programs and partnerships like it are needed.
“When you look at police work in the 21st century one of the prevalent issues is dealing with people who are in mental health crisis,” Johnson said. “Police officers do have training in that, but the problem is we don’t have the resources.”
Every Swansea officer is trained to handle mental health crisis, Johnson said, but they are often dealing with a backlog of calls that doesn’t allow them adequate time to deal with an individual the way a mental health professional can.
He said he hopes partnerships like Chestnut’s MetroLink program become the standard in the metro-east.
“How do we get these people help? Jail is not always the answer and frequently for people in crisis, jail only makes it worse,” he added. “We do the best we can but we don’t always have the tools to deal with these issues.”
Johnson said most police officers are aware that in mental health situations police presence can “raise up the anxiety” of a situation. Working with mental health professionals is a way to ease that tension, he said.
“We want to do what we can to lower that anxiety. All police officers want to lower that,” he said.
Rev. Larry Rice, a homeless advocate and president of New Life in Christ Evangelistic Center, agrees with Johnson that jail is not the best place for the unhoused, especially those battling mental health issues. But, while Johnson maintains that law enforcement officers also are needed to confront riders who become belligerent or even violent, Rice argues that police involvement should be limited.
In fact, he says he advocates redirecting public resources for jails toward implementing and expanding the kinds of services offered by Chestnut Health.
“Everyone expects the police to solve all of the problems but police intervention should be the last resort,” Rice said. “The mental health advisors are able to deescalate situations, calm someone down, and offer them an alternative.
“Locking someone up should be the last resort, there are already too many individuals with mental health problems who are in city and county jails that are costing taxpayers to keep them there when the money could be better spent on Chestnut’s MetroLink program and others like it.”
Homeless advocates mixed on the program
Angela Barnes, Executive Director of Good Samaritan House, said the MetroLink program is innovative, and will ultimately be a “win-win” for the community.
“This is a wonderful strategy to improve homeless individuals’ access to mainstream resources and services in the area,” Barnes said.
“Chestnut mental health advisors riding the MetroLink to engage folks and provide them with resources will only prove positive in increasing the individual’s behavioral health stabilization, overcoming barriers in navigating services available, improve connection with primary health care, and ultimately limit the amount of homelessness.”
Good Samaritan House is an organization that provides shelter for women and children who are experiencing homelessness.
Rice, like Barnes, said he thinks the program is an excellent thing because individuals who are experiencing homelessness and mental illnesses have a hard time finding a shelter.
“St. Clair County doesn’t really have that many shelters,” Rice said. “The city of Belleville shut down the Salvation Army a few years back.
“A lot of the homeless are riding the transit service now because it’s starting to get cold, they can’t get at a shelter anywhere. We have over 200 homeless people a week seeking transportation assistance from us, they need to get to jobs so they need this kind of assistance and when there’s actually no other place for them to go they have to ride the transit system.”
Vice President of The Society of St. Vincent de Paul Joe Hubbard worries if there’s enough places to house all of those who will get referrals from Chestnut.
“The problem is there is not enough programs for people falling through the cracks, and especially for the people who suffer from mental illnesses,” Hubbard said. “St. Vincent de Paul has a drop-in shelter and we get about 65 people a night who are homeless, and a lot of them are mentally ill, and they have nowhere to go.
“We get a lot of referrals from hospitals.”
Making a difference with unhoused and other metro riders
According to the regional Continuum of Care, a group that helps plan and coordinate services to the homeless throughout Illinois, there are roughly 250 homeless individuals in St. Clair County on any given night.
From April through July of 2021, Chestnut’s staff engaged with more than 300 mass transit riders in the metro-east. Out of those interactions, 60 individuals received connections to services. The majority were in need of housing, while many others needed food or a place to shower or rest.
“A lot of riders present as homeless, that’s no. 1,” Schwaegel said. “Then it would be mental health, and then it would be substance abuse.
“It’s other things too. Some riders are just looking for jobs, a hot meal, access to food pantries, and things like that.”
When engaging with someone that is homeless, Schwaegel said she sits down with them and calls the housing hotline to try to get a referral to a shelter as well as placed on the wait list for more permanent and stable housing.
For immediate shelter, a shower and a hot meal, riders are taken to St. Vincent de Paul in St. Louis.
Chestnut staff distributes backpacks, tote bags full of food, hygienic products and other items and distributes Narcan, a substance used to resuscitate opioid users suffering an overdose.
Sharkey said transit systems around the country are taking notice of the work happening in St. Clair County, including in St. Louis where a similar program with Chestnut Health Systems is in its early stages for the Missouri portion of the MetroLink.
Sharkey, Schwaegel and other members of Chestnut Health Services also recently spoke at a recent Midwest Public Transportation Association convention, where other cities from across the country asked questions about how the program worked and how it was implemented.
The program is expected to be renewed and to grow in the coming year, Sharkey said. He said he hopes to add more full-time team members to the program and expand the coverage, which right now is lacking in the early hours of the day.
“They’re working 40 hours a week so there are certain hours a day where we don’t have coverage when we’d like it,” Sharkey said.
Beyond the individuals that are being helped, Sharkey said he believes the program is helping put riders who use the MetroLink “at ease.”
“I think it’s making a difference for the ridership,” Sharkey said. “I think it gives people on transit who see this organization doing this work some peace of mind that they’re going to have a safer journey.
“People are compassionate, they want to see people getting help and not see them just adrift,” he added.
Kavahn Mansouri and Amoni Lewis are reporters with the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.