For many homeless people in the city, trains provide shelter the streets do not but recent action on those living in stations has advocacy groups concerned
By 11pm on a recent weeknight, the E trains had started to slow. Subway cars idled at World Trade Center, the last stop downtown, before departing again for Queens.
Most riders left their train as soon as the door opened. A handful remained, going back and forth all night.
For many homeless people in New York City, the subway is the safest place to sleep. Trains and stations provide shelter the streets do not. Last weekend, four men were brutally murdered, while they slept on the sidewalk.
On the E train, a man with white hair and torn clothing lay across the seats. Blinking in the fluorescent light of the car, he said he had lived on the subway for about five years.
I screwed up my life, he says. Im just sleeping on the train. Thats it.
He got up and staggered to the platform. There would be no further questions.
A woman who gave her name as Robin sleeps on a bench at World Trade Center. She said she decided to live in the station because it provides anonymity.
Most people stop asking why you are there, she said, an arm draped over her black suitcase. They leave you alone for a while.
The police sometimes make her move, she said, but she does not mind being shuffled around. The station is better than the citys shelters, which are crowded and dangerous.
They say you cant live on a subway platform, she said, and you cant. But I cant think of where else to go.
Most regular riders of the New York City subway will have seen someone who lives on a train or in a station, sometimes asking for money. The homeless have become part of the subway experience.
New Yorks governor, Andrew Cuomo, wants that to change. In July, he directed the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) to address homelessness in trains and stations. The MTA said the hiring of 500 police officers would help address quality of life issues on the subway, including those that stem from homelessness.
In return, advocacy groups slammed the MTA. Criminalizing homelessness, they said, would only push people further away from the help they need.
Historically, the MTA police force currently about 700 strong has been deployed at bridges, tunnels and stations. The New York police department (NYPD) has dealt with the subway, with about 2,500 dedicated officers.
[The] number of homeless [is] way up in the New York City subway systems, he said, adding that it was just a degradation, the decline in the quality of life issues. Its palpable, I mean, you can feel it.
You can feel it on the Long Island Railroad. You walk into a car where a person who is disturbed stayed the night before, you cant even walk in because of the smell and the soiling. So that is a very real problem.
MTA officers on subway platforms will be tasked with enforcing MTA rules. Sleeping can interfere with the operation of the [MTAs] transit system or the comfort of the passengers. Lying down is a form of disorderly conduct. Violations can result in criminal prosecution.
Josh Dean, executive director of Human.NYC, a homeless advocacy group, said he had seen police enforcement in action. If someone is lying down in a subway car, he said, even late at night when no one else is on the train, officers will bang batons on the seats or poke the person, trying to wake them.
The efforts to use policing as a force to address this is not going to do anything to help, Dean said. Theyre not actually addressing the root causes of homelessness.
Housing should be a basic right
Between October 2017 and September 2018, more than 133,000 people slept in New York Citys shelters. But thousands more were on the streets.
Each year, volunteers make federally mandated counts of people sleeping on the streets and the subway. On one below-freezing night in January 2019, one such count found 3,588 people living rough, 2,178 of them underground.
The MTA has a multimillion-dollar contract with the Bowery Residents Committee (BRC), a not-for-profit that deploys outreach workers throughout the subway network. Their help is routinely declined. Those living in the stations do not want to go to a temporary shelter or through the complicated intake system for a permanent place.
Treating homelessness as a quality of life issue for people who are not homeless, rather than a tragedy for people who are homeless, is just a wrong way to be looking at homelessness, said Giselle Routhier, policy director at Coalition for the Homeless. We should be trying to help them move into housing, which should be considered a basic human necessity and right.
Karen Walker, 56, made the choice to live in Penn Station last year. After a violent relationship left her on the streets in 2014, she paid to live in a building that was part-shelter, part-rented single-occupancy rooms. Tired of tensions between those who lived there as a shelter and those who paid rent, she moved into Penn.
Officers patrol the station at night. They usually come around three or four in the morning, Walker said, when the commuters are gone. Sometimes the police wake people and tell them to stand or leave.
For months, Walker says, she has not been bothered.
I dont really fit the mold of what you call a typical homeless profile, she said. She does not pick food from the garbage, ask for money or carry a lot of stuff. If you exhibit behavioral signs of homelessness, then youre pretty much targeted.
But in July, she received the first of three court summonses for lying down in the station. Each time, an officer asked for her ID and handed her a summons, even after she stood up.
After she went to court and met with a social worker, Walker obtained a housing voucher. She will soon be looking for a permanent place to live.
Though her experience in court was ultimately positive, Walker said she had to advocate for herself and be firm on her right to housing. That is hard for many homeless people, especially if they are intimidated by law enforcement.
The shame, embarrassment and humiliation keep people tied to situations that are just destructive, she said. Some people are easily discouraged and therefore may limit themselves.
The MTA has yet to announce how much its hiring spree will cost. Citizens Budget Commission, a watchdog, estimates the new officers will cost more than $56m in the first year and possibly $865m over 10 years, including $40m from the Manhattan district attorney the MTA has said it will use. The MTA also hopes the officers will crack down on fare evasion, which it has said cost it $215m in 2018 alone.
Rachael Fauss, a senior research analyst at advocacy group Reinvent Albany, said the MTA should reprioritize its existing police force.
The MTAs job is focusing on transit services and as the lifeblood of the city. They should be using their resources to make sure the service is as good as it can be, Fauss said. They have scarce resources Its a really questionable decision at a time when their operating budget is really in dire strife.
At Penn, subway riders were largely sympathetic toward the homeless.
They dont have homes, and now they want to go to sleep on the train The police want to harass them, they want to wake them up and tell them they got to go, but where are they gonna go? said Anthony Oramon, 24, of Harlem. Its just sad.
Pinny Rosenthal, 52, from Long Island, said trying to push the homeless out was not solving the problem. Youre dealing with a symptom, not the cause.
It would not solve the problem of homelessness, its getting the problem out of our sight thats what it is.