SEPTA declined to release video of transit officers using pepper spray and batons to clear homeless people out of Suburban Station

An effort to remove people sleeping in Philadelphia’s Suburban Station on a below-freezing night in January escalated into a melee in which SEPTA transit officers resorted to using pepper spray and swinging batons.

Transit police didn’t use force until they were under assault, said Thomas Nestel, SEPTA’s police chief, and ultimately needed backup from Philadelphia police to quell what was described as a mini-riot. The incident has fed fear among the homeless and left advocates questioning whether officers should have been moving people out on a frigid night.

“To rise to that level was shocking,” said Sister Mary Scullion, executive director for Project HOME, a nonprofit that provides homeless services. “And inappropriate against people who were only asking why are they being put out.”

SEPTA police clear Suburban Station’s halls every night around midnight to ensure security and make space for cleaning crews, Nestel said. Officers tell people sleeping or lingering in the station that they must leave. Typically, officers direct people who need shelter to a Department of Behavioral Health facility at 15th and Market Streets. The people in Suburban Station late at night say officers can be brusque, but a physical confrontation is an anomaly.

Others have homes but come to the station to get high. City officials describe some people as “predators.”

“We’re seeing people who are dealing drugs and probably engaged in some other kinds of activities,” said Eva Gladstein, deputy managing director of Health and Human Services.

Suburban Station’s long, crooked corridors splay out from its cavernous art deco central concourse like the legs of a spider, and scattered along them late at night are dozens of people. About 11 p.m. on a recent night, two huddled in the doorway of a closed shop. Across from them, another person sprawled face down on the floor, the brittle contents of a self-rolled cigarette scattered beside him. One crew sat in a circle on the floor beneath the bright, harsh lights. Another slouched against a maintenance vehicle and chatted. A man nearby appeared on the verge of falling asleep on his feet. The air carried echoing laughter and smoke with a spicy tang, likely K2, a smokable material sprayed with chemicals described as synthetic marijuana, that people in the station readily admit to using. People defecate and urinate on the floors.

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During much of the past year, the number of indigent people in the station had been declining, Scullion said, but a head count on a cold night in January recorded 200 homeless people there, roughly equivalent to the same time last year.

SEPTA police face the twin pressures of being sensitive to a vulnerable population and keeping one of the city’s busiest transit hubs clean and safe.

“There are competing schools of thought,” Nestel said. “One is that the station should be a shelter for people who don’t have some place to live or some place to go, and the other is the station should have no one in it that doesn’t relate to mass transit.”

SEPTA attempted to find a middle ground last year when it worked with Project Home to create the Hub of Hope, a 11,000-square-foot facility in the station that provides an array of assistance. It’s well used but closes at 7 p.m. And Scullion noted the people lying on Suburban Station’s floors late at night may not be the same people who turn to Hub of Hope for help.

“There’s just a lot of frustration down there,” Scullion said, “from every angle.”