New York City’s homeless have sought refuge in the subways for as long as there has been homelessness and subways. But the COVID-19 pandemic has intensified the problem for obvious reasons.
More fortunate New Yorkers, the vast majority of us, are sheltering at home during this public-health emergency. But those who have nowhere to call home in normal times, still have nowhere to go during this pandemic — no roof over their heads.
So, it isn’t surprising that homeless individuals are seeking refuge in some of our subway cars, stations and tunnels. But just because it’s unsurprising doesn’t mean it’s acceptable. And the Big Apple’s attempts to ignore the existence of this vulnerable, often emotionally disturbed, population has made its presence in the system a growing frustration for essential New Yorkers riding the subways, not to mention the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s own hardworking employees.
As I ride the system in these challenging days, the increased numbers are undeniable — and heartbreaking. While the subways remain safe, the MTA can’t allow the situation to further intensify and endanger our riders, our workers and the homeless themselves.
The MTA has 71,000 employees, and in good times, we get more than 8 million people to work and school and back home again each day. We are North America’s largest transportation system. But we aren’t a social-services agency or health-care provider, and we have limited expertise in the unique challenges of mental illness or homelessness. Simply put, we are, under no circumstances, the right people to tackle this problem.
And yet, because it’s utterly unacceptable for our staff and our customers to be left without a solution, the MTA has done tremendous amounts of work to address this crisis. Since last summer, we have added cleaners, hired more MTA Police and, through our Homelessness Task Force, stepped up our partnership with homeless organizations.
The reality is, all of this was supposed to be an interim initiative to give the city’s government more time to come up with its own response and solutions. We are still waiting. And while we wait, the MTA is continuing to pour resources into this effort — spending taxpayer dollars that could go to other initiatives — while City Hall has seemingly decided that so long as homelessness happens underground, solving it is not their priority.
As the pandemic rages on, the MTA is ramping up its response — increasing the number of cleaners in train cars and at end-of-line stations, and adding more police underground. We have also brought in private contractors to assist in the work of alerting authorities to homelessness and other deteriorating conditions.
And we are changing our Code of Conduct to make it abundantly clear that the transit system must be used by people for transport only — not for sheltering, sleeping, storing belongings or panhandling. We will enforce these new regulations in close coordination with our NYPD partners and the MTAPD.
So long as our riders need to get to work, it’s our job to get them there safely. And so long as there are homeless on the system, we’ll treat them compassionately. But we will also ask them to move along promptly or take up the offer of social services. Because the MTA workforce shouldn’t have to clean up trash, personal belongings, soiled items, drug paraphernalia, excrement and bodily fluids. Our customers shouldn’t have to board a car that has multiple people using it as a shelter and as a trash receptacle or toilet. And the essential front-line personnel working to keep this city safe shouldn’t have to encounter panhandling and trash or threats on their already-stressful commutes.
Our city must do better than this. We shouldn’t leave the most vulnerable to suffer quietly in a tunnel or on a train, and our workers shouldn’t be left to clean up the mess that is left behind.
We need action — now.
Sarah Feinberg is the interim president of the New York City Transit Authority.
Source: Read Full Article