Elevator Up: BART partnership program helps man transition back into society

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Dathan Ephram remembers growing up in San Francisco's Bayview-Hunters Point as a child in the 1970s. He describes a beautiful place and how he and the other kids would play basketball in Gilman Park. 

He lives there again in a one-bedroom apartment with his fiancé, four blocks away from his mother as he transitions back into society. He spent 31 years of his life behind bars on a felony murder charge for a burglary he committed where someone died during the crime. He describes it as taking the life of an innocent person in 1987. At the time he was suffering addiction to crack-cocaine. 

"I love this city. I did a lot of harm as a young man and I try to alleviate some of that harm."  Now, through a program at Hunters Point Family, the 52-year-old works as a BART elevator attendant supervisor.

He earns $26 an hour, up from his previous wage of $16 an hour, as an attendant after receiving a promotion. He's only been on the job since May. The program began a month earlier. 

"This group has a sterling reputation, which is why we agreed to partner with them," said BART spokesperson Anna Duckworth. "Lena's [Miller] screening and training is very rigorous and effective."

Miller began Hunters Point Family in 1997. She also grew up in Bayview and is now a Ph.D. candidate in psychology. Part of her program deals with formerly incarcerated adults to provide them with job training and employment. Ephram is a participant in the program that secures BART's elevators at Civic Center and Powell stations where they have been misused as bathrooms and by intravenous drug users

So far, BART says the feedback has been positive. They've received hundreds of positive comments through the mail, email and social media posts. The elevator attendant program has been extended with funding through June 2019. 

"We're providing a public service," Ephram said. "A lady and her husband said when they were growing up, elevator attendants were everywhere. They said it was nice to bring it back."

It wasn't easy in the beginning, Ephram explains. "There was friction between us and the BART station agents. They resented us and didn't want us using their break rooms. They were told we're ex-cons and criminals." While in some cases that is true, the worst-case scenarios of the program participants "selling drugs" or other negative situations have not happened. BART considers it a success. 

"Now they embrace us," said Ephram. "They say, 'We're so glad to have you guys.' I've been told the elevator is so clean. Since I've been there, there have been zero incidents."   

BART cleans the elevators with deodorizer two times during his shift. They're also responsible for mopping the floors and walls. 

As for Ephram, his focus is on keeping things "cordial" and "comfortable."  He explains serving the "City Hall crowd" and the homeless who "haven't had a bath in a month." He treats them all the same. The bottom line is showing people respect. As the old adage goes, you get what you give.

Ephram said some of the homeless who ride in his elevator have told him, "I respect you." His physical presence and attitude have curbed drug use and defecation in his work space. 

"Their emotional intelligence is off the charts," said Miller of the participants in her program. "Their work ethic is better than anyone else's. It had to be for them to survive. They're looking for redemption." 

Hunters Point Family has had such great success, they have expanded with more than 50 staff working in Los Angeles' Skid Row and beyond. They're already partnering with San Francisco Public Works on the Pit Stop program, which provides mobile toilets to the homeless. 

Miller emphasized the amount of therapy, counseling, and work on themselves inmates go through during the parole process. 

While incarcerated, Ephram said he was indoctrinated in a prison mentality. "I was told not to trust whites and Mexicans." But the parole board told him to go to Alcoholics Anonymous. He noticed the diversity among the group. Rather than sharing stories, he was closed off and not talking. 

It wasn't until he listened to others share their stories that he realized "They're talking about me. A light came on. I started opening up. I started accepting people as they were. That began my recovery."  

Things are going considerably well for Ephram. He even has a second job at the Tanforan Mall's Sears. 

Part of his rehabilitation has involved embracing change. The Bayview Hunters Point has certainly changed since his dad left and he became that "angry little kid" so many years ago. It's also been a long time since he first went to prison. 

"The neighborhood has changed. I embrace change and progress. Life is too precious to worry about things you can't change." 

Ephram's rehabilitation has allowed him to change the person he once was. For those concerned about his background, they should listen to the feedback. His example of excellence has proven otherwise.