As Homeless Take Refuge in Subway, More Officers Are Sent to Help
Posted January 14, 2018 8:49 p.m. EST
NEW YORK — More police officers have been sent into the New York City subway to address the large number of homeless people sleeping on trains during cold winter nights, the police said.
The officers’ objective is to offer services to the homeless people, from shelter to hospitalization, but their task is a daunting one. In the wee hours of Sunday morning, officers entered an E train while it was held at the last stop, World Trade Center. There were 70 homeless people aboard.
The increase in police officers followed a report last week in The New York Times that found dozens of homeless people taking refuge on trains, particularly the E, which for decades has been the line most-used by the homeless because it is subterranean for its entire ride, keeping it warm at night.
“There have been dozens and dozens of additional officers added to the subway to ensure the safety of our transit system as well as to help with outreach to the homeless — particularly in the overnight hours,” said J. Peter Donald, a spokesman for the Police Department.
He said the officers were there to offer help to the homeless, not to remove them. “Homelessness is not a crime and neither is riding the subway,” Donald said, noting that the police were working in concert with outreach workers and focused on “areas where conditions are known to exist.” The additional officers are working primarily at the endpoints of a handful of lines, including the E, A and No. 1.
Early Sunday morning, temperatures were in the teens. The 70 homeless people on board the E train around 2 a.m. were asleep or motionless. Some were dressed appropriately for the cold and appeared to be self-sufficient, but as officers and outreach workers in orange parkas walked the length of the 10-car train, they passed a number of grim cases.
One man had put his legs into a garbage bag; another was doubled-over in a wheelchair wedged into a corner. Another man had wrapped himself in white bedsheets and was twitching. When the police made him sit up, he stretched out, revealing bare, callused, feet.
The officers lifted hats and blankets that people had put over their heads to block the light. They rapped on the seats using batons or flashlights, causing the riders to stir from sleep.
“Can you sit up, please?”
“Sir, sit up? Sir? Thank you.”
Some people were asked if they needed medical attention. “Do you need to go to the hospital, sir?”
“I’m good, I’m good,” came the reply.
When the police asked riders if they wanted to go to a shelter, the same response came back, dozens of times: No.
Officials said the increase in officers is part of a multipronged effort by the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio to reach the unsheltered homeless, a population estimated at 3,900 in 2017, an increase of 40 percent from the year before.
“The trains have been an issue. We’ve added many more outreach workers and we’ve paired them with police officers to help convince homeless New Yorkers to come off the streets and into shelter,” said Jaclyn Rothenberg, a spokeswoman for the mayor’s office.
Under de Blasio, the city has increased the number of temporary shelters known as Safe Havens, doubled the number of outreach workers on the street, and tripled the number in the subway to more than 100, said Steven Banks, the city’s commissioner of social services, who was hired to stem the city’s homelessness crisis. It has also created a list of known unsheltered homeless people, which since 2016 has grown to 2,000 names. Partnering with the police, he said, was a tool meant to “increase the number of contacts,” with every homeless individual. “It can take five times, or 200 times” before someone responded and agreed to leave the streets, he said.
“Our clients are people who have fallen through every safety net that exists,” he said. “It takes an effort literally every day to get people off the streets.”
Muzzy Rosenblatt, the president and chief executive of the Bowery Residents’ Committee, a nonprofit organization that sends outreach workers through the subway system and major commuter rail stations, said of police officers: “They are not there to coerce. They know their mission is not to empty the cars, but to save lives.”
On the overnight shift from Saturday to Sunday, 13 people in the subway system accepted services offered by outreach workers and police, according to Banks. “Each night we make a little amount of progress,” he said. “But for the individuals, it’s a life-changing amount of progress.”
The homeless said they had noticed an uptick in the number of officers on subway trains over the last week. “It’s double,” said Pedro Vargas, 32, a former racehorse jockey from Venezuela who had been living in the subways for three years. “Most of them understand the situation, so they let you stay inside the train, relax. You just got to sit.”
A woman in a trench coat on the E train who gave only her first name, Elizabeth, said: “The last few days, there have been more. They’re nice, they’re trying.”
A rider on the train, Jaswinder Walia, said he was disgusted at the state of the E train, which he took on his way home to Long Island after work as a chef at a Manhattan hotel. He complained of unsanitary conditions, saying, “This is a nursing home, these people are sick. This is not bad for them, it’s bad for us,” he said.
But the homeless onboard said the train was the only place they could sleep — it was cold out, and they were not permitted to lie down in transit hubs. “There’s places people can go, but no place that’s safe,” said Gail Sancho. She had been a nightclub bouncer, she said, but fell on hard times and had been homeless for a year.
As the E train traveled from Manhattan to Queens, it filled with people heading home after work, or a night out; some were taking the train to Kennedy Airport. Few noticed the people sleeping among them. But by the time the train reached its final stop in Queens, the train had emptied, leaving only the homeless again.