Today’s Read: MTA Police to Take Action Against Homeless People on the Subway
Although the vast majority of homeless New Yorkers sleep in shelters, those who sleep on the streets and the subways are often the most visible manifestation of the city’s record homelessness crisis. This summer, there has been a flurry of news about the presence of homeless people in the subway system. Unfortunately, much of the attention to this issue has missed the fundamental point that many homeless people in the subways do not want to enter shelters – perhaps because they’ve had negative experiences in large municipal shelters. Outreach teams are often unable to offer people the options that would actually help them move off the streets and out of the subways: low-threshold safe haven shelters and, even better, dignified permanent and supportive housing. Until the City and State fully commit to creating more of these resources, they will not address the root causes of homelessness in the subways.
However, that has not stopped the City and the State from announcing new initiatives that promise to step up “enforcement” (read: policing). In June, the City announced a new “diversion pilot” in which NYPD officers would reportedly issue summonses to homeless people on the subway and allow the summonses to be cleared if people agreed to meet with outreach workers. The Coalition responded that trying to force people into services that might not meet their needs is counterproductive:
“The NYPD’s misguided new policy will only serve to further criminalize homeless New Yorkers through useless summonses. There is no criminal justice or policing solution to homelessness in New York City. People avoid services and shelters for a variety of legitimate reasons, the most important being the shortage of safe, welcoming shelter beds and permanent and supportive housing. Reducing the tragedy of people taking makeshift refuge in transit facilities and on the trains means giving them somewhere better to go – not using the police to chase them in circles.”
Then, in July, Governor Cuomo decided to get in on the action by sending a letter to the MTA Board of Directors urging them to address homelessness on the subways as part of their “Reorganization Plan.” Once again, the Coalition responded that elected officials should invest more in affordable housing to give homeless people a better option than the subways:
“As Gov. Cuomo wrote: Let’s actually focus on helping the homeless. Offering all homeless people a way out of homelessness and into safe, affordable and supportive housing is the solution. Every level of government, including New York State, can and should redouble their investments in these permanent solutions. However Gov. Cuomo’s reference to increased policing of homeless people in the subways is misplaced: We have always advised State and City leaders that the answer is most definitely not more policing because summonses and harassing vulnerable people to make them move simply pushes them deeper into the shadows without helping them obtain the services and housing each one of them needs. If Gov. Cuomo wants to fix the problem, let him step up with more housing and services specifically targeted for homeless people, stop shifting the cost of shelters off to localities, and stop the prison-to-shelter pipeline from the State’s correctional facilities.”
And now this week, Mirela Iverac of WNYC/Gothamist wrote that the State is planning to have MTA police and State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance staff wait at the end of several subway lines to interact with homeless people who might be on the trains:
MTA police and staff members from the State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance will be waiting at the end of several train lines, according to information obtained by WNYC/Gothamist. While the OTDA and other outreach workers will offer services and shelter placements to the homeless, the MTA police officers will be on hand to enforce violations of agency rules. The initiative will take place across 16 terminal stations in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx — from the World Trade Center on the E line to the end of the 4 line in Woodlawn.
Giselle Routhier, policy director at the Coalition for the Homeless, criticized the program for essentially “criminalizing” homelessness.
“This and the other previous announcements are all PR to make it look like the governor is doing something about the problem without actually devoting resources to addressing the problem: affordable housing, supportive housing, and low-threshold safe haven shelters,” she said.
Although the specifics of these plans are still opaque, one clear component will be increased interactions between homeless people and police officers. Further criminalizing homelessness is not the solution, and it is critical that all New Yorkers stand up for the rights of our homeless neighbors. If you see police harassing or wrongly engaging a homeless person, try to get a badge number while taking notes on what is transpiring. Your mere presence as a witness may be helpful. Contact the Coalition at firstname.lastname@example.org with a description of what you have seen.
Coalition for the Homeless Policy Director Giselle Routhier appeared on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show on August 19, 2019, to discuss homelessness and policing in the subway. You can listen to the full segment here.