Homeless advocates are blasting the decision by the MTA to use stationary buses to house the street homeless who were booted from the subway as temperatures plunged into the mid-30s Friday night with a record snowfall.
The weather combined with the overnight closure of New York City’s subway trains and stations meant the street homeless population faced even greater risks during the coronavirus pandemic, which prompted the closure.
The city offered some warming buses parked outside of end-of-line stations as “a place for individuals to escape the elements in the short term,” said NYC Transit interim president Sarah Feinberg and TWU Local 100 president Tony Utano in a joint statement Friday. The stationary bus service will also be available Sunday.
"These stationary buses will not transport individuals experiencing homelessness, but may serve as a place for individuals to escape the elements in the short term as we just Wednesday took the unprecedented step of implementing the overnight closure from 1 – 5 a.m.," read the statement. "The city will continue to be out conducting outreaching and as always we urge individuals to accept social and medical services and go to shelters, save havens or hotels."
“We are providing these buses only during this cold snap and expect the city to continue to step up and take responsibility for providing safe shelter for those individuals experiencing homelessness,” the statement said. “As we have stated many times, we are transportation providers, not a social services agency.”
The MTA said it would respond to a Gothamist inquiry on the number of buses deployed, number of people who used them, and what locations the buses were parked at some point Saturday. The New York Post reported that one lone warming bus at the Stillwell Avenue station in Coney Island “was watched by Triborough Bridge-Tunnel Authority Police and city-contracted outreach teams from the nonprofit [Bowery Residents Committee].”
[UPDATE: The MTA issued this statement in response to our questions: “After implementation of the recent overnight subway closure on Wednesday, there were a limited number of buses deployed as a one-time measure due to unseasonably cold temperatures. The weather has improved and we have no plans to deploy any additional buses tonight or into the future. Ensuring access to shelter and social services for homeless New Yorkers continues to be a city responsibility.”]
Earlier this week the MTA launched its new program of shutting stations and subway service from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. to try experimental cleaning methods and to remove the homeless, whom government officials have called a safety hazard during the pandemic.
Advocates for the homeless called the warming bus plan “cruel” and “inhumane” and called for them to be housed in hotel rooms instead of busses. Hotel rooms are currently available only to at-risk congregate shelter residents and not to the street homeless population, though advocates say congregate shelters are dangerous and can spread the pandemic through shared facilities.
“I don’t know why this is the plan the city came up with. We’ve been saying for weeks that it’s a cruel response to kick people out of the subways with no safer alternative and we've been calling on the city to offer people access to private indoor spaces such as hotel rooms for weeks and they refuse to do so. And what we’re seeing is people being kicked off the trains by police and sent to the streets. It’s inhumane,” said Giselle Routhier, policy director at Coalition for the Homeless.
At the Atlantic Avenue station Friday night, warming buses were not even an option for homeless people because it's not an end-of-line station, said one staffer with the Urban Justice Center’s Safety Net Project.
Benefits advocate Helen Strom headed to the station in downtown Brooklyn near midnight on Friday to hand out warm clothing, blankets and food to the estimated 15 to 20 people who were moved out of the station as it closed at 1 a.m.
“They were closing down the station, telling everyone they had to get out,” Strom said. “And people are asking ‘where do we go? are there buses?’ And the police were like, ‘we don't know. We don't know -- you keep asking the same question.’” She also saw “one incident where the police were more like forcibly removing the person from the station. He kept saying ‘I'm not gonna go. It's raining.’ But he was taken out.”
Street-level, Strom said she saw more than a dozen people sitting on benches and standing against the walls of the shopping mall at Atlantic Center.
“The mall at Atlantic Terminal has a little overhang where people were just against the wall standing up and shivering,” she said. “There were two people who were sitting in a chair right in front of the mall, just totally bundled up and covered in whatever blankets and clothes they had, but just...were going to be sitting there clearly and trying to sleep. I honestly imagine they probably couldn't sleep if they’re going to be sitting there until 5 a.m.”
One woman told Strom that she was afraid to go to a congregate shelter.
“I saw that there's a woman outside the station who’s older and disabled,” Strom said. “She said that the staff told her she was too close to the station that she had to move away. She had serious medical conditions and she was like, ‘if I go into a shelter I'm someone who’s really high risk. I can't go in there. I don't know where they want me to go.’”
Strom said even within eyesight of Atlantic Terminal she could see hotels where the homeless could have been housed. There are “all these dry, warm, empty hotel rooms in downtown Brooklyn, right there. I could see them from where I was,” she said. The city’s Department of Social Services announced last week it would move 1,000 people from congregate shelters to hotel rooms each week.
Her colleague Craig Hughes said the failure to care for the homeless during the pandemic falls squarely on Mayor Bill de Blasio’s for not providing adequate and safe shelter.
“The mayor could offer isolated hotel rooms for people, you know, for homeless folks on the street and without fail, the mayor has absolutely refused,” said Hughes, who is the supervising social worker for the Urban Justice Center’s Safety Net Project. “It's simply because the mayor views homeless people in this kind of draconian light that is very reminiscent of (Rudy) Giuliani that we're getting this situation.”