By David Brand
A letter from Gov. Andrew Cuomo instructing the MTA to address “the increasing problem of homelessness on the subways” has prompted questions from homeless New Yorkers, advocates and transit workers who wonder why the person with power over housing and social service policy is passing the buck to a transportation agency.
The Coalition for the Homeless, the state’s leading advocacy organization, reported that 133,284 different people, including more than 45,600 children, spent at least one night in a New York City municipal homeless shelter last fiscal year.
On July 18, there were 58,164 people, including 20,861 children, in municipal shelters, according to the Department of Homeless Services’ most recent daily census. An untold number of unstably housed men, women and children whose names do not appear on an apartment lease stay with family, friends and associates, or sleep in privately run shelter settings, like church basements.
Cuomo, however, seemed to refer to the relatively small, but very visible, percentage of homeless individuals who sleep on the street or in public spaces, like the subway system. They have fallen through holes in the most basic social safety net — temporary, emergency housing.
“Homeless people often pose a danger to themselves and others,” Cuomo said in the letter. “Let's actually focus on helping the homeless, rather than political posturing. This is not an issue of helping the homeless or the subway riders; that is a false choice. We must serve both.”
But the letter did not propose potential solutions, which left people questioning its purpose.
“To deal with homelessness, first you need psychiatrists, you need the police, you need the doctors — because some of them have immediate problems — and social workers, too,” said O.G., a 64-year-old man who sleeps in a Manhattan shelter.
O.G. spends parts of the day at the Brooklyn Borough Hall subway station, where he encounters other homeless individuals, often with mental illness, who do sleep on the trains. He asked not to publish his full name, but said he read about Cuomo’s letter in a newspaper at the subway station.
“[Outreach workers] are trying to do their best with getting more people off the subways and out of the tunnels and wherever they may be,” he said, adding that he encourages other homeless people in the station to accept the help. “They bring you help and it’s not costing you nothing to reach out and extend your hand and accept their help.”
But O.G. said he worried that Cuomo’s directive could lead to more police officers hassling him and other people who spend time in the station — which he said happens from time to time.
“I don’t see the sense of arresting them because if you’re arresting them you’re just taking one problem and putting it in another spot,” he said. “You can’t put them in jail because where are they gonna go next? You’re responsible for them.”
Andres Torrres, an organizer with Picture the Homeless, said people often stay in the subways because they are afraid to visit shelters. He said he slept on subways when he experienced homelessness in the past.
”It’s broken down, its unsafe, they don’t want to go in the shelter system because it’s not safe enough,” said Torres, 54. “We feel more comfortable being on the subway system because of the warmness, and it’s safer.”
Picture the Homeless launched a campaign in 2014 to resist over-policing when the NYPD began targeting homeless people on the E Train, said civil rights organizer Nikita Price.
“I’m glad the governor feels something needs to be done,” Price said. “But the issues here are nothing new to the homeless.
“But you’re blaming the victims here. You’re blaming the homeless here,” he added. “These numbers have not moved in years.”
In its response to Cuomo’s letter, the Coalition for the Homeless said the only way to prevent people without homes from sleeping in the subways is to end homelessness city and statewide.
“Offering all homeless people a way out of homelessness and into safe, affordable and supportive housing is the solution,” the Coalition for the Homeless said in a statement. “[T]he 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,” the organization continued.
A station agent who was on break near the State Supreme Courthouse in Brooklyn on Friday said she heard about the letter but did not understand what more MTA staff could do to address homelessness. She said she gets to know the men and women who sleep on the trains and in stations, as well as the outreach workers from the organization BRC who visit to offer services.
“If you’re in New York City, you know it’s not easy to get help or housing,” she said. “The person sending the letter is the one with the power.”
“It’s easy to blame transit,” she said.