We've spent the past week talking about the plight of unsheltered New Yorkers in the subways for our We the Commuters coverage. From trying to explain the facts about the homeless and describing the policies that have diminished affordable housing options, to the MTA's enforcement-heavy approach and the station workers who have the most contact with the homeless. We've also heard from you, the commuters, about how you feel when you encounter the homeless. As one person put it: "I mainly just look at them and then look away, as sad as it is to say."
Some sent their thoughts to our firstname.lastname@example.org email, Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook; a few were critical, others very powerful, and all of them honest. We've included a number of them below. And if you'd like to join this conversation, next Tuesday, September 24th, at 7 p.m., we're convening another We the Commuters Live event at The Greene Space. State Senator Liz Krueger, MTA Board Member Larry Schwartz, Coalition for the Homeless Policy Director Giselle Routhier are among the speakers. The event will be hosted by WNYC reporter Shumita Basu, joined by her WNYC and Gothamist colleagues. (More details here.)
My commute takes me to the 34th Street and 8th Avenue subway station (A-C-E) twice a day. There is a constant population of homeless men and women, including elderly people -- perhaps most upsetting of all. I sometimes give money, but mostly find the situation emotionally overwhelming, and wonder how this wealthy city, and its "progressive" mayor, could allow this to continue. Many nonprofits are paid by the city to help addicts, the mentally ill, and the homeless. I wonder how diligently they actually do their jobs and whether the city even checks on the effectiveness of their work.
The solution is NOT to kick the homeless out of the subways without a better solution to help them in place. Period.
- Julie Shevach
I am a devotee to WNYC & admire & am emboldened by your commitment to issues of civic virtue & understanding. To that end I would like to say that the issue of homelessness on the subway can’t be fully addressed without a deep dive into the lived experience of NYC’s shelter system.
I entered the system in April & it is a world ruled by arbitrary & demeaning rules enforced by an often callous loosely educated & underpaid staff. I have a graduate degree from Columbia University & have taught at Columbia & in the CUNY system but have struggled to regain my footing after being displaced by fire & being treated for serious chronic illness- every day that I wake up in my assigned shelter I wonder if sleeping on the street might not be a better alternative. This from someone who once eschewed camping.
- Rangi O'Neil
I am a commuter and the problem is acute. We can’t ride one day without encountering human feces, homeless people screaming and terrorizing commuters on the M line. This is not what a subway system is supposed to look like. I pay the fare, I expect at least a clean and safe ride.
If we want to get people out of their cars and reduce pollution, we need to have a subway that (1) clean (2) safe (3) comfortable (d) with fewer delays. This can not be accomplished with homeless people inundating the subway. Do I feel for the homeless? Yes. But there has to be a balance of care and concern for the vast majority of people who ride the subway. How many people avoid the subways like the plague? How many people don't use the subway because of some incident that force them into remaining home or taking Uber?
After a situation where I had to move from three cars due to terrible stenches in the subway cars at 5:30 in the morning, I became very resentful of policy leaders in the City and the MTA who refuse to do anything about the situation in the subway. I called the transit authority to complain. I received a call from the transit police. The response to my complaint was to call 911. When I insisted that they station police and social workers at the terminal of the subway line, the response was:: "We can't." That just what I did not want to hear. It seems as if this simple solution of meeting the homeless where they are and helping them to get help was rejected out of hand. So, we have to accept the situation as is. Of course, those of us who are really upset by the conditions on the subways vote with out feet. Or should I say with our cars, Uber or just stay home.
I don't know if I've ever heard of a single person blaming homeless folks for the train delays. They're usually just sleeping on the train for warmth. Can't imagine that causes many delays.
...I would say the most important voices to be heard are of those who are or HAVE BEEN homeless. As we can understand though, sometimes, those who are in the midst of their homelessness, may be suffering from lack of sleep, in the midst of the trauma that led to their homelessness as well as the repeated assault on their self image and self confidence that is often the nature of the homeless experience. So the voices of those who have moved on from the daily experience of living in the subway may provide a more articulate insight.
For example, one of my colleagues who was homeless for over 15 years (but is now well housed and employed) talks about how his state of an unwashed existence was as much out of a desire to keep people away from harming or disturbing him as anything else. He has shared how he was once stopped by a policeman (i think for jumping a turnstile) who, after detecting his odor, told him to "get out of here" as he said "i was even too dirty to get myself arrested...
- Marc L. Greenberg, Executive Director, Interfaith Assembly on Homelessness and Housing.
I don’t what the solution is but they should not be on the subways. The smell is disgusting I pay my fare and I do not pay to see this.
I spent nearly a year in the homeless system in 2009. Whilst I lived in a shelter, I often found myself sleeping on the subways for a simple reason: most homeless shelters restrict access to dormitories during the day. During the time I lived in a shelter, I was heavily medicated for bipolar disorder. Over-medication of homeless people is common -- it is an effective way of keeping people docile and zombie-like, less likely to make trouble. The medication I was on made me drowsy. I slept poorly in the shelters because I often felt unsafe, and dormitories can be noisy at night because of open drug dealing, police and parole officers conducting raids and arguments between residents.
The few hours of sleep I usually managed to get was rarely sufficient, and there are few places for homeless people to sleep during the day. Shelters have common areas that are noisy during the day and usually have uncomfortable seats that are difficult to sleep in. Public places like cafes and libraries will throw people out for falling asleep. Parks can provide good places to sleep, but only in nice weather. That leaves subways and buses. They are not comfortable, but they are protected from the elements and you are usually only thrown out at the end of the line.
I felt ashamed on the occasions that I felt the need to sleep in the subway, but I did not have other options. If there were facilities where the homeless could safely sleep during the day, there might be fewer of them on the subways.
I wish the city would have some compassion for them but you know the answer is police officers throwing them in jail.
The past year, I worked in a free legal assistance clinic and got to know some homeless folks that way. A few had repeated issues with cops in the subway - these incidents often resulted in them losing their possessions. As I understand it, since 9/11, the NYPD has taken the authority to search any possessions on the subway, without any kind of a warrant.
Hypothetically, you have the choice to leave the subway rather than allow it to be searched, but I have heard it does not play out this way. I have heard cases of cops pushing homeless folks out of the subway car, leaving their stuff behind. For street homeless who may or may not have a storage unit, this can mean a severe set back. With 500 more cops, I fear there will be only more of this unchecked harassment.
Each day I see terribly ill people unable to care for themselves, unsure where they are or who is talking to them. These street people are not homeless they are ill, a people who need the safety net of a rich democratic society to care for them. They are a direct reflection of a failed de Blasio administration and Cuomo's Albany...
...I see a clean city back sliding as mentally ill people fill the stations, the subways, the lobbies, the doorways. I see less tolerance and more suffering each day as the Bloomberg years slip into the glow of history. I see the people most in need mis-labeled as 'homeless' when they are so far beyond homeless. I see homeless as a word the enables politicians and the voters to hang on to as an excuse. I see homelessness as a failure of a wealthy society to do the right thing...
- Jasa Brodie
I suggest we need an army of trained social workers to help intervene and manage this situation ;to work in conjunction with the police
This will help document and expedite the needs of the people who ride the trains who have no place to sleep.
- Laura Lehrman
The more the city has homeless friendly policies, the more homeless we will attract. it's become so acceptable that they are part of the "diversity" of our city.
...While I agree homelessness is a problem, the millions of people using the train should not be punished for a societal ill by being force to switch cars to get away from people who are using the subway as a home. Fare evasion is a similar problem - as I watch folks slip under turnstiles and sneak on to buses I cannot imagine how many people have paid their lawful fares, waited in lines, and done the right thing.
Please - in our effort to be humane - do not make life miserable for the 99.9% who do follow rules. As the subway becomes miserable again, we drive more and drive more or take Uber.
- Thomas Reefer