Jose Martinez, THE CITY
Facing a rising tide of human waste on subway cars while station restrooms remain closed, the MTA is preparing to hire hundreds of new car cleaners, THE CITY has learned.
The number of reports about cars soiled by urine, waste and other fluids is this year on pace to hit its highest levels since 2019 — even as ridership hovers at around 60% of pre-pandemic levels, according to the most recent data from the transit agency.
Through the first six months of 2022, there have been 1,689 reports of subway cars with soiled interiors, according to MTA figures — in 2019, there were 3,402 such incidents, up from 2,846 in 2018.
“It’s bad, it’s bad,” said Matt Ahern, a Transport Workers Union Local 100 official who represents subway car cleaners and inspectors. “Listen, when you have people living on the car and using it as their kitchen and their toilet, they are going to be soiled — that is a harsh reality.”
Ahern told THE CITY that some relief is on the way in the form of “several hundred” new car cleaners. A July 8 job posting for transit cleaners on the MTA website says applications are being accepted through August 31.Pay starts at about $19 per hour, increasing to $31.71 after six years.
“The battle is out there every day for the workforce with the increase in the homeless population,” Ahern said. “Everything you can imagine they are doing in a car, they are doing.”
At the Jamaica Center-Parsons/Archer terminal on the E line, multiple car cleaners told THE CITY they regularly encounter filth on cars that have to be taken out of service for cleaning.
“The homeless just mess on the train, they use the train as a bathroom,” a veteran car cleaner who did not want to be identified by name told THE CITY at the E line’s Queens terminal. “They go on the seats, they defecate between the cars, they don’t care.”
The MTA declined to comment on hiring plans, saying only to expect “additional updates and information” at the agency’s July 27 board meeting.
“Unsanitary conditions are a challenge for our professional cleaners, who work hard every day to ensure trains and stations are clean for riders,” spokesperson Meghan Keegan said. “We continue to maintain a robust cleaning regimen and monitor terminal locations where the most soiled cars are identified to adjust staffing as required.”
There are currently 913 subway car cleaners, with 345 assigned to end-of-line stations, according to the MTA. During the pandemic, the agency has also relied on contracted cleaners to scrub trains.
“They’re trying to get ridership back,” Ahern said. “Well, nobody wants to ride a filthy subway car, so that’s all part of it.”
As ridership bottomed out in 2020, there were 2,749 soiled car reports, followed by 2,580 last year, according to the MTA.
”They do whatever the hell they want to do, on the trains, in the elevators, in the stations,” Paris McGhee, a 49-year-old homeless man who sometimes sleeps in the subway told THE CITY at the Jamaica Center-Parsons/Archer terminal on the E/J/Z lines. “The late nights, nobody’s here, I’ve walked in and, oh, man, it’s bad!”
Nowhere to Go
Meanwhile, the 76 stations that have restrooms — or about 16% of the subway system — have had their stalls shuttered since early in the pandemic.
And there is no timetable for when they will reopen, with MTA officials citing concerns over safety and a shortage of resources.
Jacquelyn Simone, policy director at Coalition for the Homeless, said it is “definitely past time” for subway station restrooms to reopen.
“People need somewhere to go,” she said. “And if there are not clean, accessible restrooms, there will be public urination and defecation, it’s that simple.”
MTA officials have said the restrooms will reopen once the agency has enough cleaners and can ensure the facilities are safe for scrubbing.
“The MTA prioritizes cleaning of station platforms and train cars used by millions of New Yorkers and will not compromise the safety of its riders and staff by opening public bathrooms at a time when resources are not available to also provide bathrooms with necessary cleaning and security,” spokesperson Dave Steckel said.
In April, filmmaker Jack Zullo tweeted at the transit agency about a “half naked” man who was smoking on a Coney Island-bound F train during the evening rush and had apparently soiled himself and the floor.
“He was sitting there, just basically staying to himself in his own little world and sitting in his own mess,” Zullo, 44, told THE CITY. “I felt sad, because that person really needs a home where he can be taken care of.
“Unfortunately, we don’t live in a world where those services are easily provided or easily accepted by someone in that situation,” he added.
Earlier this year, Mayor Eric Adams and Gov. Kathy Hochul rolled out a plan to cut down on subway homelessness and crime by increasing social service workers and police on trains and in stations.
“The first week, we only had 22 people that took us up on our offer,” Adams said last week at the opening of a Bronx facility for people struggling with addiction and mental illness. “Now, we took 1,700 people off the subway system because we engaged them.”
Simone, of the Coalition for the Homeless, said the need for restrooms extends beyond those who shelter in the subway.
“Public officials are recognizing we have a serious issue about lack of public access to public bathrooms,” she said. “No one wants to be peeing on a subway train, right? No one wants to do that.”
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