The woman sitting on her walker in a tiled corridor at Penn Station wouldn’t give her name, but her story illustrated the cat-and-mouse game that plays out between the authorities and homeless people seeking shelter in the nation’s busiest transportation hub.
She said she has been staying for a “few years” at Penn Station, which has commuter rail services and inter-city passenger rail lines operated by Amtrak, all connected to the New York City subway system.
“They chased me out of that little room, you know, by Madison Square Garden entrance, and then they told me to go to the other side – upstairs. And then I went to the Amtrak side. I was there 10 minutes, and they came … and told me to get downstairs. Now I'm downstairs and you know, here they are, they're walking all around here,” the woman said in an interview early one morning this week.
Two workers from the Bowery Residents’ Committee, a social-service organization the city hired to do subway outreach, had approached the woman minutes earlier, trying to coax her into a shelter. But she turned them down, as did two others in the station who were experiencing homelessness.
In response to a spate of violent assaults in the city's subway system — in which some of the alleged attackers were people experiencing homelessness and mental health problems — Mayor Eric Adams and Gov. Kathy Hochul announced their subway safety plan in February, which aimed to pair police officers with mental health workers like those from BRC with the goal of moving more than 1,000 people living in the transit system into shelters.
A spokeswoman for Adams said it relocated 22 people in the program’s first week and made contact with roughly 150 individuals per night, but it did not provide information on how many offers were extended.
But critics of the plan said increasing those numbers will depend on whether outreach workers can build trust with the people they’re trying to help and whether there are enough suitable places for them to go. The state plans to open 500 new units of supportive housing, but they are not expected until the end of the year, and the number is far short of what advocates said is needed to meet the demand.
Hochul said she also wants to provide additional space for psychiatric treatment, but that she needs federal assistance to do it.
Jacquelyn Simone, policy director at the Coalition for the Homeless, said many homeless individuals find group shelters dangerous or the curfews and rules too restrictive. She said homeless individuals are more likely to accept low-barrier shelters, known as safe havens, where there are fewer rules and fewer residents, or supportive housing, which combines affordable housing with on-site services.
“Without that missing piece of where people will go, I do think that this plan will not be successful and we'll see more people pushed from one subway line to another, or from the subways to the streets, where they're exposed to the elements,” Simone said.
The plan also called on New York City police officers to increase enforcement of transit rules, including a ban on large carts on trains, laying down, or using the subway for any other purpose than transportation. These initiatives, Simone said, could breed distrust and make it much harder for outreach workers to connect with homeless individuals.
“We think that having outreach teams paired with police officers, however, can be detrimental in that instead of people who are unsheltered seeing outreach teams as social service agents who want to help them, they will instead see them as a branch of the police,” Simone said.
The mayor’s office said a total of 455 people were ejected from the transit system during the first week of the program, but it’s not known if they were homeless.
Many commuters noted a dramatic change in the subway in the two years since the pandemic began, with more people sleeping in stations and on subway cars. In his speech laying out the subway safety plan, Adams also cited an increase in smoking and drug use on the transit system.
Gary Distilli, 59, who was waiting at Penn Station for a train to take him to his home in upper Manhattan, said it’s too early to see any difference. He said he sees people continue to sleep on the trains and in subway stations.
“It's still an issue,” Distilli said, “but I'm sure they'll make some headway and gain a little ground on it.”
But David Johnson, 60, who has worked as a cleaner for the MTA for a decade, seven of those years at the Chambers Street station, said he has seen fewer people sleeping in the station in the last week or so.
“It's been a lot better. It hasn't been all the stations, but for here it's been good,” Johnson said as he swept up trash from the terminal floor, including a toothbrush, a razor, lotion, and a library book.
In the atrium at Penn Station, at least a dozen people gathered near the station’s new escalators at just after midnight on Tuesday. Some seemed to be sleeping while standing up, all under the watchful eyes of MTA police officers.
Among them was Alberto Bravo, 32, a homeless man who was replacing a bandage on another homeless man’s swollen foot, which Bravo said had turned black and purple.
“I need to help him because he can't do it and he needs somebody to help,” Bravo said.
Bravo said he had left his home in Veracruz, a port city in Mexico, to find work in New York City but hasn’t had any luck, so he has been sheltering at Penn Station since he arrived three weeks ago. He said people in orange jackets, presumably outreach workers, offered him a bed in a group shelter, but he declined and opted to sleep on the floor at Penn Station, despite the difficulties that entailed.
“The police, every 40 minutes they tell you, ‘wake up, wake up,’ every 40 minutes,” Bravo said.
About an hour later, at the Jamaica Center-Parsons/Archer Station in Queens at the end of the E line, two women who work as outreach workers with the Bowery Residents’ Committee were standing on the platform with at least a dozen other people with luggage and bags of belongings, but the women did not engage with anyone for about 45 minutes. Both women declined to comment, though a BRC official later said they’d been taking a break after one of them had nearly been assaulted by a man earlier in the night.
Another E train pulled into the station. A conductor banged on the car to rouse a sleeping man.
“Let’s go,” the conductor said as he stood near the man sprawled out on the seat.
The man slowly rose from his slumber, shuffled out of the train, and joined other people on the platform, waiting for the next train to take them and their belongings back into Manhattan.
Additional reporting by Stephen Nessen