Officials say homeless using SFO as refuge

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- San Francisco International Airport is a way station for travelers. It's a welcoming stopover, but not for the homeless, who police say are using the airport as a refuge.

At SFO there are restaurants, museums, retail stores, traffic gridlock and lots and lots of people.

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"We're essentially a city with a population of about 150,000 passengers and about 30,000 employees on any given day," says SFO spokesman Doug Yakel.

It has more people than many cities here in the Bay Area.

Like cities and towns, the airport faces similar issues like crime and homelessness. Police say shoplifting at the airport's many retail stores is an ongoing problem and so are luggage thefts where passengers claim their belongings.

Airport police are looking for a man who was seen in a security video grabbing a suitcase from a carousel. He was seen ripping off the white claim tag before leaving with his stolen luggage. Another camera records him getting into an elevator, then he's seen walking out toward the airport BART station.

Last year, there were 783 luggage thefts at the airport. This year, San Francisco Deputy Chief Mikail Ali says police are gaining a foothold: "We're seeing a 17-percent decrease in luggage theft year to date. I think a huge reason is our presence at the BART platform."

Chief Ali points to the man who grabbed the suitcase from the carousel as an example of what he's talking about.

"He exited the airport by way of catching BART, so you can presume that he caught BART to get here," said Chief Ali.

Airport police, working with BART officers, have increased their presence at the platforms.

"We have a number of officers at the BART platform, checking for people who are fare evading. If you're coming to the airport to engage in conduct that's not lawful, it's not likely you paid for your BART," Ali said.

While we were staking out the BART station, we saw a fare jumper and followed him outside.

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"I noticed you jumped the fare here?" ABC7 News said to him.

"I have no money," the man replied.

The man was incoherent and appeared to be intoxicated and he said he was homeless. ABC7 News told him that there was an information booth nearby who could help him. Instead of help, he went outside to smoke a cigarette.

SFO spokesman Yakel says air travel can be stressful: "We're looking to make it more enjoyable and being confronted by homelessness is really not what we want to offer our passengers."

But the Airport has become a refuge for homeless people. It's a warm, safe shelter far away from the tough realities of the streets. Many nooks and crannies where they can sleep for the night.

Michael is 32-years-old and he's homeless. ABC7 News asked him how he got to the airport, he said BART. Michael rides BART a lot and he likes to end up at SFO. He tells us he likes the view and the atmosphere.

"Is it easy to find a place to sleep here at the airport," ABC7 News asked.

"Oh, it's not too bad, not too bad," said Michael.

Both police and the Airport say they try to help homeless people they encounter. They refer them to a program called Life Moves.

"They're a homeless advocacy group and they work with individuals who are primarily based in San Mateo County to attempt to align these individuals with the proper resources," Yakel said.

With four trains running from morning to night, stopping the homeless migration will be difficult.

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