Inside look at NYC’s painstaking new push to get homeless out of subways and into shelters during coronavirus shutdown
Police from NYPD's, Homeless Outreach Unit and NYPD's Transit Division are seen here escorting a homeless individual from the "Q" train, at the 96th Street Station on April 28, 2020.
Thirty-five masked cops and homeless outreach workers gathered at 1 a.m. Wednesday along Manhattan’s 96th St. subway platform on the northern end of the Q line, waiting for trains to pull in.
“Over here,” one police officer shouted, pointing to a disheveled man sleeping in the corner of a train car. “Let’s wake him up," another cop said before tapping his flashlight against a hand railing.
The cops brought the destitute straphanger onto the platform, where he was examined by a nurse who works for an NYPD outreach unit. The man was given two options: Go to a hospital, or go to a homeless shelter.
He chose the hospital, which he reckoned was safer than a shelter during the coronavirus pandemic.
The show of force at the Upper East Side terminal was the unofficial launch of a collaboration between the city and state-run Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Both camps want to remove homeless people from the subway system.
“The city is stepping up and realizing they have to do something for these folks who live in a way that is not healthy,” said MTA chief safety officer Pat Warren. “No one should be living like that. And no one should be living on a train for 10 years.”
Transit workers have for years pleaded in vain for the MTA and NYPD to yank homeless riders out of the subway.
But the problem has grown particularly acute during the city’s coronavirus shutdown, which has hit MTA hard.
A shortage of healthy workers forced the MTA to cut subway service by 30%. Now the homeless are crammed onto fewer trains, taking up more precious space that riders need to social distance.
“My members have been harassed and assaulted by unstable riders countless times,” said Transport Workers Union Local 100 president Tony Utano. “Since the pandemic, they’ve also had to worry about getting the virus from people camped out in the system who can’t practice good hygiene.”
Under the new city-MTA collaboration, all riders will have to exit subway trains at their final stop. If someone doesn’t comply, a police officer will force them onto the street. If they have nowhere else to go, a homeless outreach worker will try to convince them to be taken to a shelter.
If a rider is deemed unstable or at risk, they will be taken off the streets and treated even if they say they don’t want help, officials said.
Most of the people sleeping on trains at 96th St. overnight Wednesday exited the station without any fuss.
At 1:30 a.m., a pair of sleeping men who rode into the stop were approached by workers from Bowery Residents Committee, a nonprofit that partners with the MTA on homeless outreach.
One of the men was interested in going to a shelter, but his companion declined the offer. The duo left together, and only accepted a pair of fresh surgical masks from the outreach workers.
Homeless advocates believe if the city offered hotel rooms to those kinds of riders, they’d eagerly accept.
Many people who sleep on the trains cycle back into the subway soon after they’re forced off. They tend to prefer the subways over city shelters, advocates say.
One rider who was roused by the cops at 12:30 a.m. was surrounded by three extra-large garbage bags and three milk crates containing his belongings. He refused to go to a shelter, and spent the next 20 minutes slowly dragging his stuff up the escalators and onto the street.
“They said they were cleaning,” the man said. “They ain’t cleaning. They lying."
Interim NYC Transit president Sarah Feinberg said she expects he’ll return to the subway before long.
“It’s a hard decision to pull these people off, but some of these people could clearly use some care," said Feinberg. “The hope is that when you encounter people over and over and over again they’ll eventually realize it’s not worth it to live on the train.”
The MTA has since early August used their in-house police force to help outreach workers coax homeless off trains. The effort has resulted in more than 57,000 engagements with unsheltered riders, 3,888 of whom have agreed to go to a shelter, officials said.
But in order to address the thousands of homeless people who use the subway for shelter during the colder months of the year, the city and the MTA will need to staff end-of-line stations with hundreds of cops a day, said Local 100 officer Hector Correa.
“To get these people out, you need a dozen cops at each terminal all day long,” said Correa, who works in the MTA’s car equipment division. “Even then there’s still the missing piece. People are going to be pushed out, and they’re just going to come back down again later or at another station.”
Another homeless man cops found at 96th St. at 12:15 a.m. had a shopping cart filled with bags that towered six feet into the air. He took the elevator out of the station, and Correa said he expected him to be back in the subway by sunrise.
The Daily News caught up with the man two hours later. He was 48 blocks south, pushing his cart along the bike lane on Second Ave. at 48th St. He declined to say where he was headed.
It’s not clear if the MTA and NYPD have enough police officers to tackle the homelessness issue. Officials said planting 20-plus cops at the end of subway lines every morning is not sustainable.
At 3 a.m. on the other end of Manhattan, just two police officers were monitoring the Brooklyn Bridge-City Hall station at the end of the No. 6 line.
The cops went on break just before a train pulled into its final stop. More than 20 homeless people were aboard.
Instead of being forced off the train, the sleeping riders took a ride around the station’s loop, which gave them a view of the original City Hall subway station that’s been closed to the public for 70 years.
“That’s nice,” one homeless rider remarked of the vintage architecture. He went back to sleep as the train headed north.