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How the MTA Uses the Pandemic to Freeze Out the Homeless

Issue 262

Reduced overnight service, benches removed, loitering laws limiting time spent in subway stations, and the shelters are overflowing. Where to go?

Jordan G. Teicher Mar 15

At one of his daily press briefings last April, Governor Andrew Cuomo held up the front page of the Daily News, which featured a photo of homeless New Yorkers camped out in a subway car.

“That is disgusting, what is happening on those subway cars,” he said. He called those conditions “disrespectful” to essential workers, who need public transportation to get to their jobs.

“These kinds of policies from the MTA really only exacerbate that trauma and compound the difficulties of trying to survive on the streets.”

The moment might have seemed like just another one of the governor’s “New York tough” poses. But the day after Cuomo’s press briefing, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which the governor effectively controls, updated its Code of Conduct with new emergency rules ostensibly meant to “maintain social distancing” and “safeguard public health and safety.” One rule forbids the use of wheeled carts greater than 30 inches long or wide. Another forbids passengers from remaining in a station for more than an hour.

Since the one-hour rule makes exceptions for a litany of activities—including political campaigning, public speaking, and artistic performances—advocates argue that its real intention was to keep homeless New Yorkers out of the subway system.

The MTA made the emergency rules permanent last September.

“Folks who are unsheltered and take refuge on the subways have seen a huge reduction in the number of resources throughout the city to meet their basic needs. People’s lives have changed for the worse,” says Giselle Routhier, policy director at the Coalition for the Homeless. “These kinds of policies from the MTA really only exacerbate that trauma and compound the difficulties of trying to survive on the streets.”

In February, Barry Simon, a disabled 55-year-old man who’s experienced homelessness since the 1980s, filed a lawsuit against the MTA charging that the policies are discriminatory, backed by two homeless-advocacy groups, Picture the Homeless and the Urban Justice Center’s Safety Net Project.

He says he was forced to leave the subway dozens of times, and was often threatened with arrest or the seizure of his belongings. “They’d actually start writing up the ticket, and once I kind of envisioned all I’d have to do to get my stuff back, I’d just be like ‘OK, officer, I’m gonna get off the train now, and you won’t see me anymore,’” he told the Indypendent from the Queens hotel where he’s been staying since February.

The MTA has said that the rules were designed only to “protect the health and safety of customers and employees in the midst of a global pandemic.” In a statement to the Indypendent, MTA spokesman Andrei Berman said that “sheltering in the transit system is not a solution to a severe housing, mental-health and substance-abuse crisis that needs an effective and holistic response from the city.” Any suggestion otherwise, Berman said, is “a gross misunderstanding of the problem.”

• • •

Danny Pearlstein, policy and communications director of the Riders Alliance, said he agrees with the MTA—to an extent. He doesn’t believe that public transit is the answer to the housing crisis. But, he says, the solution is “to make it so that no one has to live there—not to complicate the lives of the people who do.” And he says that power lies squarely with Cuomo.

“The governor is the governor of the housing crisis, as well as the transit crisis,” he said.

Cuomo once led a commission that recommended overhauling the city’s shelter system and expanding services for homeless New Yorkers, during David Dinkins’ mayoral administration in the early 1990s. But as governor, Pearlstein says, he has favored an approach based on law enforcement.

“The governor’s wealthy backers who object to taxes also object to the fact that there is a physical homelessness problem in the subway system. Whether it’s their own policy choice or his, the governor has resorted to a policing model rather than a housing or health care model probably because it’s nominally cheaper,” he said. “But of course, it doesn’t resolve the problem.”

In recent years, according to the Coalition for the Homeless, homelessness in New York City reached the highest levels since the Great Depression. Last year, nearly 123,000 different people slept in the city’s shelter system. On an average night there were nearly 59,000 people in the system.

During the pandemic, however, many people experiencing homelessness have avoided the crowded congregate shelters, where COVID spreads easily. By June of last year, according to Gothamist, 120 homeless people in the city had died from COVID. The vast majority had been living in shelters.

With many other indoor public spaces closed, more homeless New Yorkers descended into the subway system. The day after the MTA announced its Code of Conduct updates, the governor declared that it would suspend all- night subway service for the first time ever, to clean trains more intensively. Homeless advocates say the shutdown provided another excuse to remove homeless people.

“The solution they’ve always had is ‘Let’s bring more cops to this. Let’s arrest people. Let’s try to force people off the trains,’” said Joe Loonam, housing campaign coordinator at VOCAL-NY. “The shutdown is a really dramatic version of a policy that has been carried out for decades in the city.”

On February 5, an MTA operative on Twitter responded to a passenger’s post about benches disappearing from some subway stations by explaining that the benches were removed “to prevent the homeless from sleeping on them.”

The MTA quickly deleted the tweet and claimed that the benches had been removed for cleaning. Authority officials told the Indypendent that it has never tailored a policy to a passenger’s housing status. They did not respond to a question about how many benches had been removed from the system in the past year.

• • •

Giselle Routhier says there are things the city and state could do that would help homeless people and address the root causes of homelessness. She’s been calling on the city to offer all homeless New Yorkers a single-occupancy hotel room instead of a bed in a congregate shelter. (A lawsuit filed in October by the Legal Aid Society and the law firm Jenner & Block makes the same demand.) She also supports a bill pending in the state Assembly that would create a housing voucher program, which would help homeless New Yorkers acquire stable housing.

“We need to see a care-centric model,” said Loonam. “As soon as you have a new voucher program and you have more beds opening up in supportive housing units, then [Department of Homeless Services] outreach workers can go into the subway and offer people a permanent place to live. That’s going to be a lot more attractive to people. And you’re going to see a reduction in the number of people who are sleeping on the trains.”

Ideally, Barry Simon said, “peoples’ humanity, peoples’ situation, peoples’ stories should have some sort of weight” when MTA leadership decides how to treat homeless people in the subway system. But realistically, he said, he just hopes to be able to sit in the subway in peace and “get out of the cold for a little while.”

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