Little Sign of Change as Push to Move Homeless People Off Subway Begins

On the first morning rush hour since Mayor Eric Adams announced a sweeping plan on Friday to remove homeless people who shelter in the New York City subway, the transit system felt a little different.

Judith Williams, who has lived in and around the subway for years, said she noticed fewer people sleeping sprawled out on trains the last couple of days.

“Maybe they’re getting the message,” she said Tuesday at a station on Brooklyn.

At Pennsylvania Station in Manhattan, outreach workers in orange vests, carrying clipboards, fanned out in search of homeless people to help. Police officers approached two men, one sleeping at the foot of a staircase, another lying on the floor, and told them they had to move.

Manuel de Jesús Delgado and some of the other regulars who shelter inside the Jamaica-Van Wyck station in Queens took a look at the gaggle of police officers patrolling the platform and headed up an escalator.

“What am I supposed to do when there are four of them standing there with guns and badges?” Mr. de Jesús, 72, asked in Spanish. “We can’t stay there.” Inside the station, Al Walker, 61, who was heading to work, said he was “shocked” that the platform, usually full of homeless people, was empty except for riders hopping on and off trains. “The mayor really got them on their toes,” he said.

But a sprawling subway system with 472 stations and thousands of train cars in service is hard to transform overnight, especially when people who have been sheltering in the system, sometimes for years, feel they do not have a more appealing alternative on a raw February morning.

Ms. Williams said that while the police had rousted her off the floor of the subway platform overnight, they agreed to her sleeping on a bench next to a shopping cart filled with her possessions, something she has learned to do over the years.

The outreach workers at Penn Station were offering homeless people the usual limited choices, generally a bed in a group shelter. And they were getting the usual no-thank-yous. Many homeless people refuse to stay in shelters because they find them dangerous or because they have extensive rules and curfews.

One of the men rousted by the officers went up to the platform. The other went down a corridor into the commuter railroad part of the terminal and lay down again.

Some police officers were enforcing subway rules but were allowing homeless people to stay in the system. Credit…David Dee Delgado for The New York Times

And Mr. de Jesús and his friends in Jamaica went no further than the entranceway at the top of the escalators leading down to the station, where they sat beside their belongings in the chilly drizzle.

The State of New York City’s Subway

  • Perspectives From the Platform: Times reporters visited three stations to see where subway riders have returned, and where they haven’t.
  • Subway Safety: After a high-profile killing and the announcement of a safety plan focused on homelessness, recent attacks show the challenge Mayor Eric Adams faces to curb transit crime.
  • M.T.A.’s Uncertain Future: While ridership has crept back up, there’s a growing consensus that it may never return to prepandemic levels.
  • Sharing the Train Again: Our photographer spent a year riding the subway amid the city’s fitful recovery. Here’s what she saw.

Still, in other parts of the system nothing had changed. On a downtown 2 train at 149th St station in the Bronx, one sleeping man had an entire train car to himself as commuters packed into the next two cars to get away from a heavy smell. Another car had three people sleeping in it.

At 110th Street station in Manhattan, a man smoked crack on the platform in open view of two officers about 10 feet away.

On a downtown 3 train in Midtown Manhattan at 9 a.m., a man lay across four seats with a granny cart by his side, his legs resting across the knees of a woman in a black parka whose body was draped over his.

Across the doorway from them, Johnny Pruitt, commuting to his job at a gym, said he was not surprised, given that the new era had only been announced four days before.

“It would be nice if they had a place to put them,” said Mr. Pruitt, 39, who lives in Astoria, Queens.

“Ultimately, you want a clean, safe riding experience, but you don’t want it at the expense of kicking these people who are real people to the curb.”

On Friday, Mr. Adams and Gov. Kathy Hochul announced that the over 1,000 people who shelter in the nation’s largest subway system would be removed. The move follows an increase in violent crime underground, including several high-profile attacks linked to homeless people.

Police officers and mental-health workers would be deployed into the system. The police would remove people who were using the trains for anything other than transportation; social workers would connect them to social services and housing, the mayor and governor said. “No more just doing whatever you want,” Mr. Adams said. “Those days are over.”

At the 34th-Street Penn subway station on Tuesday. Many homeless people are reluctant to leave the system because they say shelters are  unsafe.  Credit…David Dee Delgado for The New York Times

A spate of attacks across the subway system over the holiday weekend, including at least eight violent incidents, only one of which involved an attacker who appeared to be homeless, underscored the difficulty of rooting out random violence in the system.

At a monthly committee meeting Tuesday of the board of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs the subways, the head of the Police Department’s transit bureau, Chief Jason Wilcox, said that overnight, more than two dozen transit-bureau officers escorted teams from the city departments of health and homeless services.

In a news conference Tuesday, Mayor Eric Adams said six teams of outreach workers were deployed on Monday, and that the city plans to have 30 teams. So far, Mr. Adams added, the teams have interacted with about 100 apparently homeless people in the subway system.

Police Commissioner Keechant Sewell has said officers are focusing on high-priority stations and train lines where either ridership or reported crime have increased.

Mr. Wilcox added that police officials expected to supplement those efforts with stronger enforcement of the subway’s code of conduct, which prohibits staying in a station for more than an hour and taking up more than one seat on a train or platform.

“We know that enforcement of rules and regs really is not the long-term solution to getting them housing, and we understand that,” Chief Wilcox said of the homeless people in the transit system. “But we’re also deeply committed to enforcing order.”

At Penn Station, however, some of the officers assigned to step up enforcement sounded a skeptical note and said they were merely shifting homeless people from one spot to another.

“For us, it’s frustrating,” said an officer who spoke on condition of anonymity because she is not supposed to speak to the news media. “We’re just playing chess with them.”

She added, “There’s really no answer right now until the city can produce some adequate alternative. This is just another Band-Aid on an open wound.”

Up the stairs from where the officers were patrolling, on the platform of the 2 and 3 trains, Jenny Hammond sat smoking a cigarette, which is prohibited in the system. Asked if she had been approached by outreach workers, she said she had been, repeatedly. “But the only thing they’ll offer you is a shelter and I absolutely will not go,” she added.

A homeless woman who said her name was Jenny Hammond inside the 34th Street Penn subway station. She told outreach workers she did not want to go to a shelter because it did not allow alcohol. Credit…David Dee Delgado for The New York Times

As if on cue, four workers from the Bowery Residents’ Committee, a social-service organization that the city contracts to do subway outreach, walked up. “Your name is Jenny, right?” one asked.

The outreach workers offered Ms. Hammond a room in a shelter. She declined.

They asked what she needed. She said she had lost her ID.

The outreach workers offered to give her a referral to a soup kitchen one subway stop away where she could get new identification. Ms. Hammond said the edema in her legs made it too hard to walk.

An outreach worker said he might be able to get Ms. Hammond a bed in a kind of low-barrier shelter called a safe haven, where there are no curfews and she would have only one roommate. Ms. Hammond said no, because they would not let her bring in alcohol.

The outreach team offered to get Ms. Hammond a walker from their office inside Penn Station, so that she could get to the soup kitchen to get her new identification.

After much fussing, she agreed. The outreach workers said they could meet her in an hour with the walker and asked her where she would be. Outside a liquor store downstairs in the train station, she said. The outreach team helped her up, and led her slowly, gingerly down the stairs.

David Dee Delgado and Michael Gold contributed reporting.

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