Greg B. Smith, THE CITY
This article was originally published by THE CITY
Last week, two police officers approached two apparently homeless women on the No. 1 train platform at Penn Station, asking them to leave after one of them tossed something from her collection of plastic bags onto the tracks.
The interaction quickly escalated into an order — and it wasn’t going well.
One of the women cursed at the male cop, who repeatedly stated, “You have to get out. Get out.”
As the officers edged the women out of the gate and towards the street, one woman turned to yell, “Who the hell are you, the police commissioner?”
The male cop shoved the woman, who then stomped up the stairs with what was left of her belongings. From there, she faded into the streets.
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The female transit cop assisting in the ejection shouted after her, “Tell her if she comes back down here, I’m putting her in handcuffs.”
The encounter took place Monday morning, Day One of Mayor Eric Adams’ new push to get people who are essentially living in the subway out of the system. By week’s end, Adams had doubled down on his pledge, proclaiming that his administration will be “dismantling every encampment in our system.”
But the scene at Penn Station, witnessed by THE CITY, illustrates a key unresolved question about Adams’ plan: once homeless people are booted from the subways, what happens to them?
The female officer involved in the Monday confrontation, who spoke to THE CITY on the condition that her name not be mentioned, confided that the NYPD had given them little instruction on how to handle these situations other than to tell them to enforce the rules and “Just get them out.”
A week into Adams’ subway enforcement campaign, City Hall has yet to reveal anything about its results other than to say that 100 individuals were “contacted” by so-called Safe Option Support (SOS) outreach teams of cops and social workers on the first day of engagement.
The mayor’s office, the NYPD and the Department of Homeless Services all declined THE CITY’s request to provide details on how many people talked to by SOS teams actually accepted placement in shelters or were transported to hospitals for psychiatric observation. City Hall said they would not provide daily updates but would release a report at an unspecified future date.
Civil rights lawyers and advocates for the homeless, however, immediately charged that the new campaign is fatally flawed: it calls for ejecting the homeless from subways but does not adequately address the question of where they are supposed to go.
“It’s a very magical kind of thinking that we’re going to get people out of the subway when you don’t have any place to put them,” said Beth Haroules, senior staff attorney with the New York Civil Liberties Union. “You can remove that person but what are you doing for the person? You make the neighborhood feel better or you make people on the subway feel better, but you’re not solving the problem.”
The campaign — which Adams announced Feb. 18 at a news conference with Gov. Kathy Hochul after hinting at it in January — comes in response to a spike in subway crime during the pandemic and in the midst of several particularly brutal crimes, including the death of a woman pushed in front of a train by a mentally ill homeless man and the beating of a 57-year old woman with a hammer during a robbery at the Queens Plaza station.
But the mayor’s message also extended beyond just the issue of homelessness.
“No more smoking. No more doing drugs. No more sleeping. No more doing barbecues on the subway system. Not more just doing whatever you want,” he said at the press event. “Those days are over. Swipe your MetroCard. Ride the system. Get off at your destination.”
The so-called Subway Safety Plan says officers will begin enforcing the MTA’s Rules of Conduct, which were amended soon after a March 2020 fire that killed a subway motorman at the Central Park North-110th Street station after a shopping cart was ignited on a No. 2 train.
THE CITY reported this month that the NYPD declined to say how often officers have enforced the shopping cart ban in a subway system that has struggled with crime, unruliness and track trespassing since the early days of the pandemic.
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Not Enough Beds
On Thursday at the MTA board meeting, transit officials noted a survey of the subway system last month found 29 homeless encampments in tunnels and another 89 in stations. More than 350 people lived in these spots, according to the survey.
But Haroules of the NYCLU and advocates for the homeless made clear that getting people out of the system is the easy part. What happens after that is a much more complicated task.
Most of the homeless individuals who are approached refuse to go into shelters because they say they’re too dangerous. And COVID made things worse, with infections spreading rapidly in close-contact settings, particularly in shelters for single adults.
Shelly Nortz, deputy executive director for policy of the Coalition for the Homeless, cited the city’s own data showing that from May 2020 through last month — a period that included 12 months when the subways shut down in the wee hours for COVID cleaning — only a small number of the thousands of apparently homeless individuals approached by outreach workers wound up staying in shelters.
During that time, 9,200 individuals accepted transportation to shelters, but only 3,100 accepted placement once they arrived. And of that number, only about 250 were still in shelters as of this month — about 8% of those who initially accepted a ride.
Nortz said unsheltered individuals are more likely to accept beds in city-funded Safe Haven facilities, where there are fewer rules and fewer residents, or in supportive housing — actual apartments where residents are provided with mental health support.
But Nortz says there aren’t nearly enough of either, and the state’s promise to fund 500 more supportive housing units isn’t nearly enough given the estimate that more than 1,500 homeless individuals ride the rails all night every night.
“The problem is there’s no there there,” Nortz said. “If you haven’t opened enough beds and the only beds that are available they won’t stay, you’ve got it backwards.”
‘Like Deck Chairs on the Titanic’
The NYCLU also predicts that Adams’ initiative will trigger a dramatic crisis for the city’s psychiatric wards, the other option for placement of unsheltered people.
In the announcement, Hochul promised an additional $27 million annually in Medicaid reimbursements for in-patient psychiatric services and pledged to bring psychiatric beds repurposed during COVID back on line, including 600 in New York City.
State Office of Mental Health guidelines released shortly after the mayor’s news conference state that a person on a train who appears to be mentally ill can be removed to a hospital for observation if the person “displays an inability to meet basic living needs even when there is no recent dangerous act.”
State and city health officials interpret that to mean that the mere choice to live on the subway provides enough evidence that the person is a danger to themselves and thus eligible for involuntary commitment.
“We expect that once they’re fully staffed up with their SOS teams, there will be enormous numbers of people transported to psychiatric centers where they may be involuntarily medicated while they’re awaiting (psychiatric) observation,” the NYCLU’s Haroules said.
And the NYCLU has found that individuals brought to hospitals for observation are often released back to the streets soon after their arrival, and not provided with adequate support to keep them from coming back. Many simply return to the subways, she said.
Haroules noted that between the fact that psychiatric emergency rooms are often overburdened and Medicaid reimbursement rates for this treatment are low there’s an incentive to move patients out of the ER quickly.
“They’re like the deck chairs on the Titanic. You’re picking someone up on the end of the E line and taking them to Bellevue and then they’ll be put back on the street,” she said.
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‘That Shit Ain’t Gonna Change Nothing’
Janno Lieber, chairman and CEO of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, said after Thursday’s board meeting that the safety teams have already started their work.
But he noted that change will take time.
“Getting people out of the subway and into services and into housing is going to take some time. I think it’s only fair to give (Mayor Adams) and his team at the city, along with the mental health professionals from the state, a chance to do that work. It is complicated work, it means you have to make multiple connections and interactions to usually get people to accept service and to move out.”
Lieber’s timeline, however, contradicts Adams’ own promise that New Yorkers would see a change on the trains “right away.”
Random spot checks by THE CITY at several stations last week found transit cops did not interact at all with those who appeared to be homeless, including at the end-of-the-line stations Adams singled out for increased SOS activity.
At two end-of-line stations visited by THE CITY late Tuesday and in the pre-dawn hours of Wednesday, cops declined to intervene as trains came and went, transporting obviously homeless individuals splayed across seats, deep in slumber.
At the South Ferry No. 1 end-of-line stop, four transit cops, including a sergeant, stayed in a cluster at one end of the platform, chatting with each other and gazing into cell phones. One announced for no apparent reason, “We are here to help the homeless at the mayor’s directive.”
Another said, “That shit ain’t gonna change nothing.”
Meanwhile, THE CITY observed sleepers on three different trains within a 30-minute time span. One man was surrounded by a pile of plastic bags filled with what appeared to be clothing arrayed around him and under the seat. Another man with a steel prosthetic leg didn’t budge when a transit worker yelled at him, “Wake up! You have to get out!”
When THE CITY asked one cop what the rule was about staying on the train, he said that rule was “suspended because of COVID. You can stay on the train,” an interpretation that appeared to contradict the mayor’s promise.
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