Outreach workers offer help to homeless light-rail passengers

It was midmorning on a Tuesday, and the light-rail train headed to Folsom was full of people scrolling through their iPhones or reading books. A few of the passengers carried heavier loads: Backpacks stuffed with their only possessions.

Omega Ramos strolled down the aisle and announced that he was there to help.

“I’m a homeless outreach navigator, and it’s my job to find people that are dealing with homelessness along the Sacramento Regional Transit District. Do you need to see me?” Ramos asked riders in sections of light-rail cars on Aug. 9. “Do you have a place to lay your head at night?”

Marva Baber, 61, from Rancho Cordova replied, “I’m couch surfing.”

Ramos sat with Baber as she explained her circumstances. She said she had been living in Section 8 subsidized housing in Rancho Cordova when her lease was terminated unexpectedly, even though she was paying her rent. She said she had filed a lawsuit challenging her eviction but it hadn’t been resolved. In the meantime, she had been unable to find new housing.

“The housing manager wasn’t complying,” Baber said, as she clutched a file folder with her court documents.

“I can make a difference. We will fight for it,” Ramos assured her.

Ramos, 26, is an Army veteran and actor. Since February, he has worked for a new partnership between Sacramento Regional Transit and Sacramento Steps Forward, the region’s lead agency working to end homelessness. He approaches homeless people on trains, at light-rail stations and in homeless camps near light-rail lines. His mission: to connect people with services and housing.

Once Ramos makes contact with a homeless person, he sits down with them on the train and fires up a program on his iPad that allows him to create a profile with contact information and background. He photographs the person’s face and their ID card. He then follows up, helping set up appointments and for such crucial items as a Social Security card or a tuberculosis test required for entry to a homeless shelter.

On Monday, RT staff shared some of the results of Ramos’ work so far with the RT board. Ramos is following up with 66 people. He has helped 11 find housing and arranged assistance for eight others to return to their home states or towns.

RT spokeswoman Jo Noble said the RT board is pleased with the results. “Not only do we clean up our system, it’s a way to help advocate and help the homeless,” she said.

Homelessness is a significant issue for Regional Transit, which is trying to make its system safer and cleaner in advance of the October opening of the new Golden 1 Center downtown. In addition to its outreach, the agency recently launched a crackdown on people riding without tickets. That included hiring additional fare checkers and painting red lines around light-rail stations to create zones where only fare-paying passengers are permitted.

“We do get a lot of complaints,” Noble said.

Last year, the RT board considered and rejected a proposed rule that would have allowed removal of passengers who smelled bad.

The RT outreach program is part of a countywide effort – called Common Cents and administered by Sacramento Steps Forward – to effectively end homelessness by 2020. Outreach is a major component of the effort. According to the Sacramento Steps Forward website, Common Cents navigators have so far contacted 1,200 people and referred over 200 to shelter and housing.

On Aug. 9, Ramos donned his blue Common Cents shirt, iPad in hand, and boarded a Gold Line train. As usual, he was accompanied by Sacramento County sheriff’s Deputy Pam Inman, who is assigned to RT security detail. They work as a pair for their personal safety.

Inman’s hair was pulled back into a ponytail and she wore a police uniform, gun slung on her hip. But she said she focuses on outreach rather than enforcement. She hands out vouchers for fares on buses and trains instead of tickets for those who haven’t paid. Inman said she often drives people to appointments or to get food.

“How can I make their day better?” Inman said she asks herself every day.

Ramos said he will hand-deliver government paperwork and applications to agencies for clients who are too disabled to make the trip. Otherwise, he requires them to go themselves.

“When people do things for themselves, it builds confidence,” Ramos said.

Ramos said he is no stranger to homelessness, though he was reluctant to offer any details of his own experience.

After graduating from Monterey Trail High School in Elk Grove in 2008, Ramos said, he studied screen writing at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. During 2009 through 2011, he said, he slept in a car.

“I would take showers at community pools,” Ramos said. “I was struggling.”

Ramos joined the Army in 2012 then joined the National Guard after he left the Army in 2015. He was honorably discharged from both.

In 2015 on any given evening, 2,659 individuals in the Sacramento area were homeless, according to Sacramento Steps Forward’s homeless count. Almost 950 were unsheltered and about 300 were veterans.

Jessica Hice: 916-321-1550, @JesserPea

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