As an MTA station cleaner, Shenilya Fuller’s job...is to clean.
"We scrap, pull garbage, we disinfect, we clean the MetroCard vending machines and the turnstiles,” said Fuller, who currently works in the Jay St. - MetroTech station in Brooklyn. “We just make sure the station is very tidy, for the customers, and for ourselves.”
Her job is not to kick homeless people out of the subway system. But that doesn’t stop riders from asking her to do it.
“Once I put on this MTA shirt, everything is my job,” Fuller said. “From kids running down the stairs, to people upstairs, to stuff that doesn’t even involve transit. So yes, [riders] say, ‘Oh could you do something about this?’ And I’m like, I’m sorry ma’am that you’re having this issue, and I’ll do my best to help you. But there’s nothing I can tell this person, or physically do to them — no I’m not gonna do that.”
This week, We The Commuters has been covering the issue of homelessness in the transit system, from all angles. We've looked at why the MTA is cracking down on the homeless; how we got here; what the facts reveal (e.g. only 4 percent of homeless New Yorkers are on the trains); and the psychology of confronting this level of suffering during your daily commute. We also wanted to hear from the people who see the issue up close: the cleaners spending 8 hours at a time in subway stations.
Here's the short version of how they intersect: If a homeless person is lying down asleep on a bench, station cleaners say they’re explicitly instructed not to touch them. And it’s not their job to intervene in an altercation, or tell someone who’s yelling on the platform to quiet down.
The main overlap between homeless people and station cleaners, Fuller said, is that "sometimes they leave their stuff unattended, and we have to throw it in the trash. That’s just protocol.”
And that can be a point of friction.
Shafawn Simmons, another MTA employee, was working as a station cleaner at the Spring Street stop on the A and C lines about four years ago when she threw out some belongings that appeared to be left behind.
“I was scrapping — what they call sweeping up,” Simmons said. “A lady said I swept up something of hers and threw it in the garbage, but I didn’t know. And she...she pulled her pants down and did number two on the platform.
“Because she knows this is our job, that we have to clean this stuff up. So this was like her way of getting back at me. She literally pulled her pants down and did number two, like, right there. I was upset, but what can I do? I can yell and scream, but that’s not gonna change anything. I had to clean it up. That’s what they pay us to do, that’s part of our job.”
The station workers’ union, TWU Local 100, claims that assaults against MTA employees are up 39 percent this year, though that number doesn’t specify how many alleged assailants are homeless. (The union is currently in contract negotiations with the MTA.)
After Simmons’s incident at the Spring Street station, she decided to switch jobs within the MTA — she now drives a refuse truck, which carries trash out of the stations.
"That was a lot, I don't want to have to keep dealing with that,” Simmons said. “I just want to do my job, and keep the station clean, so that ridership can have a comfortable place to be."
And yet, Simmons — like many MTA station cleaners We The Commuters spoke to for this story — was largely sympathetic towards those who live in the subway system, acknowledging that many are dealing with severe mental illness.
"I don't think they're here because they want to be here,” Simmons said. “I think they don't feel like they have a choice.
"A lot of them have families,” she added, “and I've spoken to some that say their families tried to help them. They don't want the help. Mentally, they don't see it as help."
The MTA recently announced that it’s hiring 500 extra police officers to address the issues of homelessness and “quality of life” offenses in the transit system. But Nicole Gelinas, of the right-leaning Manhattan Institute, told Gothamist that the crisis isn’t one which warrants more cops.
“Many of the problems people encounter — people with untreated mental illness, people essentially living on the subways with all of their belongings — aren't going to be solved by more aggressive policing,” Gelinas said. “They require some sort of long-term mental-health strategy, including, possibly, involuntary commitment and treatment for people who cannot take care of themselves.”
But convincing homeless people to leave the subway system is an uphill battle, especially when the alternative is a shelter.
“From a lot of homeless people that I’ve spoken to over the years, a lot of them say that the shelter system is worse,” Simmons said. “They get robbed in the shelters, they get beaten up, and so they feel safer out here. They’re allowed to be here, and they know that. So, they exercise those rights.”
Bowery Residents’ Committee, the outreach service tasked with getting homeless New Yorkers out of the subway system and into shelters or more permanent housing, has come under fire by the state’s comptroller for being ineffective.
“When the homeless outreach come out,” Fuller said, “they try to get the homeless people to come with them, but they never take it. They never want to go with them.”
She added that the subway system is one of the few transit networks where homeless New Yorkers can go relatively undisturbed.
“I have taken the Long Island Rail Road, I’ve taken Metro North, and it’s nothing like this,” Fuller said. “So maybe if they had more rules or something? But I don’t see how that keeps the homeless out.
“They’re here, too. There’s honestly nothing we can do about it, as far as I can see. Because whether the police are involved, or the homeless outreach, they always tend to find a way back to New York City Transit.”
We the Commuters goes live at The Greene Space with a look at homelessness in the subways on September 24th, hosted by Shumita Basu along with her fellow WNYC and Gothamist reporters. The evening will include conversations with State Senator Liz Krueger, MTA Board Member Larry Schwartz, Coalition for the Homeless Policy Director Giselle Routhier, the former homeless, and more. More details here.
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