World / Social Issues

In New York, homeless feel safer in subway stations than in shelters

by Maurice Tamman

Reuters

The lights still scream for attention, but on this night Times Square has the feel of an abandoned Hollywood film set. Gone are the hordes of tourists shooting selfies with Elmo and Wonder Woman. Instead, a lone SUV glides by and a passenger’s phone glows as she records the scene from the safety of the car.

The unease grows on the descent into the Times Square subway station. Tutting commuters don’t barge past dawdling visitors. The full-time panhandlers have withdrawn. There is no music; the buskers are home, following orders to shelter in place.

On a normal night, in a normal time, you might not notice the gaunt man on the platform, his jeans held up by a cinched belt. But on this night, you notice that his face is uncovered.

“I am so hungry,” he says. “Do you got some change?”

As a pandemic races through New York, killing some 14,000 people in the city alone, all the frantic layers of everyday life are pulled away. The homeless — always there, but usually invisible — are now in sharp relief.

Many are spending their nights on the ghost trains and platforms of the New York subway system, finding shelter in a place abandoned by almost everyone else in a shutdown city.

Reuters photographer Lucas Jackson and I decided to spend several hours looping around the subway late one night last week talking to those who have nowhere else to go. We wanted to know how they were coping with the risk of catching the novel coronavirus — and why some of them feel safer there than in the city’s crowded shelter system.

We begin the journey around 10 p.m. on the platform for the uptown Nos. 1, 2 and 3 trains at the Times Square station. At the north end, two police officers wearing loose-fitting surgical masks offer a hello before heading up the stairs.

A dozen steps behind the lawmen, the gaunt man waits for them to leave before approaching anyone arriving on the platform. A little farther down, a few people wait for the next train wearing masks to protect against the virus.

Moments later, a No. 1 train arrives. As we ride up to 137th Street in Harlem on a nearly empty train, only a few of the passengers seem like they have no destination. The rest sit several seats apart; above their masks, their eyes track anyone moving around the car, especially those whose faces are bare.

But as the hour grows later, the masked commuters ebb away, and the hard curved plastic of the subway seats become a bed for those without them, for a little while, at least.

A man sleeps on a New York subway train amid the outbreak of the coronavirus in New York. | REUTERS
A man sleeps on a New York subway train amid the outbreak of the coronavirus in New York. | REUTERS

‘No place to go’

New York state and city officials have ordered anyone who doesn’t have an “essential job” to stay home. And people have. Subway ridership is down 93 percent since the pandemic hit, according to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

“The last couple of days, I’d say at least a third, if not half, of the folks who have been on the train car with me appeared to have no place else to go,” says Sarah Feinberg, interim MTA head of the city’s buses and subways. “I think it’s even starker overnight.”

Feinberg says MTA police and city police are supposed to stop people from spreading out in cars or sleeping, but she admits that enforcement is weak. What they have tried to do, in a program that started last summer, is to try and connect homeless riders with services that might help, though only a fraction have taken up the offer.

She says the city’s leadership has put the MTA in a difficult position because it hasn’t sufficiently protected the homeless in shelters from the coronavirus and that, as a result, some feel safer in the subway.

“The place for them to go to is not adequate,” MTA security chief Patrick T. Warren says of the city’s shelters.

The mayor’s office didn’t provide answers to several requests for a response to the MTA officials’ comments.

As of Monday, 43 people from the city-run shelter system had died of COVID-19, according to the city’s Department of Social Services. The agency said 617 shelter residents and other homeless people — including a handful living on the streets — had tested positive for the virus so far.

According to New York’s Coalition for the Homeless, an advocacy group, about 62,000 people were living in city-run shelters in January, 60 percent more than 10 years ago.

Thousands more are living on the streets and the subways, says the group’s policy director, Giselle Routhier. She says the city hasn’t done enough. Her organization wants the city to pay for housing the homeless in some of the thousands of empty hotel rooms in the city.

On April 11, Mayor Bill de Blasio said 6,000 hotel beds would be available for single shelter residents by this week. Of those beds, 3,500 homeless were already in hotels when the disease struck, and since the outbreak, 1,000 shelter residents have been moved into hotels, including about 500 residents sick with the disease, DSS spokesman Isaac McGinn said in an email.

He said plans are “underway” to move an additional 1,500 elderly and single shelter residents into hotels.

In a statement, the agency said: “As we continue to fight back against this unprecedented threat, every life saved gives us hope, strength and renewed resilience.”

A Metropolitan Transportation Authority official says the city's leadership has put the MTA in a difficult position because it hasn't sufficiently protected the homeless in shelters from the coronavirus and that, as a result, some feel safer in the subway. | REUTERS
A Metropolitan Transportation Authority official says the city’s leadership has put the MTA in a difficult position because it hasn’t sufficiently protected the homeless in shelters from the coronavirus and that, as a result, some feel safer in the subway. | REUTERS

‘I wish I had a mask too’

The No. 1 train pulls into the 18th Street station, where a small community of homeless men have set up camp, their clothes and luggage piled on one side of a worn wooden bench in the middle of the platform. Two seats on the bench serve as a makeshift dining table holding two clear plastic containers of sushi, an untouched apple atop one, a browning core on the other.

One of the men jumps for a hidden electrical outlet at the top of an I-beam pillar they’re using to charge their phones. It takes him three jumps to reach it.

Farther up the platform, a man sits in an old office chair stirring a blue powdery liquid in a one-liter soda bottle with the top cut off. He says it’s bleach. He doesn’t have time to talk about the coronavirus. “I am busy,” he says. “I am not homeless. I am working.”

He nods toward a slender man with a swollen nose near the exit. “Talk to him; he’ll talk to you.”

The man, Michael, says someone jumped him the other day and broke his nose. Now he can’t breathe through it. “I can’t sleep breathing through my mouth,” he says.

As he speaks, a recorded subway announcement booms off the tiled walls: “MAINTAIN A SAFE SOCIAL DISTANCE.”

Michael raises his voice and stares at my blue mask, the one Reuters mandates that we wear while working outside.

“I wish I had a mask too,” he says, leaning in. I wonder if his burning eyes mean he is feverish.

“Maybe I should go to the emergency room,” he says. “Maybe they have a mask.”

“IF YOU ARE NOT AN ESSENTIAL WORKER, STAY HOME.”

Michael says he’s not sure where he’ll spend the night, although at well after 11 p.m., he doesn’t have many options other than to sleep here, on the street, or in a subway car.

Sylver, who is homeless, sits with his belongings in a New York subway station. | REUTERS
Sylver, who is homeless, sits with his belongings in a New York subway station. | REUTERS

‘I’m concerned about the sickness’

On the northbound platform of the 6th Avenue line at the Rockefeller Center station, a man sits next to a shopping cart filled with plastic bottles and containers, a couple of mats and other debris picked up along the way as he navigates life on the streets.

He’s trying to stay awake, and his head bobs up and down until I approach. He looks up gravely, suspiciously.

“Well, at this moment, yeah, I’m concerned about the sickness,” he says. “But you know what? I try my best to protect myself from this coronavirus.

“I got a nice jacket, and I have here this corona mask.”

He pulls a red-white-and-black scarf from around his neck and over his chin.

“So this way, you know that you won’t catch it. A lot of people are dying in the shelter, and that tells you the shelter is bad.”

Eventually, he says his name is Sylver, with a “Y.” He’s in his 50s, an immigrant from Nigeria, a member of the Ibo tribe. He’s lived on the streets for 12 years.

I tell him we share a history in Nigeria, where I lived for six years as a boy, and his suspicion disappears.

“So you understand me, you understand Nigeria,” he says, and smiles broadly.

His job, he says, is collecting discarded treasures. But it is late; he’s tired. And he can’t decide if he should sleep here, on the bench, or rest his head in a subway car.

“I hope I won’t be sick,” he adds, tugging on his scarf. “But I’ve got this mask. Sometimes I put it on. I don’t put it on all the time, because you know, that’s the chance we take in life.”

A few days before this, I met up near Grant’s Tomb with Father Clyde Kuemmerle, who has been ministering to the homeless on and off for decades. He said many shelter residents are scared of being infected, and some have moved out, believing they’re safer on the streets or in the subway system.

“I think that for the most part, the people who were outside have stayed outside,” he said. “And some people who were inside have chosen to go outside. And the reason is, ‘I do not want to live in a petri dish.'”

One of his homeless parishioners, a man named Ajay, said life was tense in the shelters but he preferred it to life on the streets despite sleeping within a three-foot (90-centimeter) radius of several other men.

“You’re sleeping there, I’m sleeping here,” he said, while approximating about three feet with his hands. “And then you just happened (to cough) on top of me, what can I do? I just turn around, just turn my face.”

Ajay said he keeps to himself but that when someone in the room coughs, everyone wants to know who it was. “And that’s where the aggression comes in,” he says.

“They are always aggressive in there. It’s the only way to survive in the shelter. But the thing is, now, everybody’s an expert on how you get corona.”

And that might lead to an argument over how you get infected or the latest conspiracy theory to explain what’s behind the disease.

“I’m telling you I’m right. You’re telling me you’re right.”

And before long the room is full of screaming men, he said.

Luis, who says he recently lost his job and became homeless amid the coronavirus pandemic, repacks his belongings aboard a New York subway train on April 13. | REUTERS
Luis, who says he recently lost his job and became homeless amid the coronavirus pandemic, repacks his belongings aboard a New York subway train on April 13. | REUTERS

‘What can I do?’

Riding south on the No. 1 train through Lower Manhattan, Luis sifts through two plastic garbage bags, one gray, one blue. He removes a pair of underwear, some socks and a T-shirt and places them on the two seats to his right.

Luis, 46, says he recently became homeless after losing his job at a restaurant on 113th Street. Since then, he’s slept on the subway and the streets. He’s not sure if the coronavirus is a real threat to his health.

“I don’t think it’s dangerous, so what can I do?” he says, talking even as the screeching of the train drowns out his words.

“It’s not right,” he says as the train pauses at a station. “A lot of restaurants is closed. I don’t know what happened, no money, no nothing, that’s it. Everyone at the restaurant is home.”

He speaks passable English but doesn’t understand how to get help. He asks about a nearby shelter but says he’s heard they’re not safe.

He doesn’t have a phone, so I find a nearby homeless assistance organization for him to visit and write the address on a piece of paper.

He folds it into a small square and tucks it in his top pocket and then shoves his clothes back into his plastic bags. He wants to go home and live with his mother in Mexico City, but he has no money.

“Maybe in December I go,” he says, wistfully. “Maybe.”

A man on a New York subway train inspects a hypodermic needle before using it. | REUTERS
A man on a New York subway train inspects a hypodermic needle before using it. | REUTERS

Shooting up on the R train

As one day moves into the next, the trains have more and more the feel of a no-man’s land. Dried deltas of urine crisscross the floors. Piles of empty bottles and paper bags collect in the corners. Graffiti tags have started to appear in the cars, which hasn’t been a problem for decades.

Near the front of a Manhattan-bound R train, a man wearing black jeans with a shaggy beard and a mask under his chin glances over his shoulder.

None of the other homeless riders at the back of the car are paying him any attention. He turns back and picks up a syringe and needle resting on the seat next to him.

He holds it in front of him, staring at it briefly, before flicking at the syringe a few times. He twists to his left, rolls up the left sleeve of his jacket, well past the elbow, and quickly finds a vein.

He doesn’t care that I’m watching him. We don’t speak.

‘I am dead already’

Michelene leans against a white-tile wall of the tunnel connecting the Nos. 2 and 3 platforms to other lines at the Atlantic Avenue station in Brooklyn. She’s wearing a black baseball cap with “Jesus” written on the front in silver lettering.

A young woman with a speck of a gold stud in her nose pauses to give Michelene a take-out container of fried rice and a half a gallon of fruit punch before rushing off toward the platform.

It’s around midnight and Michelene is still roaming the station, looking for a place to lie down. The station has been her home for two years, she says.

Her grasp on reality seems like quicksilver. She says she was forced underground by a landlord who locked her inside her apartment for 33 days with no water and stole her money and all of her legal documents, including her passport and birth certificate.

“I used to sleep on the train, but they tortured me,” she says. “They tried to kill me here, but I am dead already and God raised me.”

Still, she says she doesn’t need God’s protection from the coronavirus.

“I have special blood,” she explains. “Not everyone has this type of blood.”

He says God will decide

Back above ground at Times Square at the end of the night, the streets are so empty that you can stand in the middle of 7th Avenue. But there is life in the shadows, and one at a time, men appear with a hand out.

Times Square, after all, is where the homeless and other panhandlers can usually make enough money to get by. This is where tourists and office workers are forced together, and enough of them can be persuaded to part with some change or small bills.

But no more, says Tom, an Alabama native who prefers the subway to the shelters.

He stands over a takeaway bowl of spicy Cajun rice and beef, using a rectangular concrete bollard at 42nd Street and 7th Avenue as a table.

“I shouldn’t eat this,” he says, easing the pressure on his right foot while packing his uneaten food into a torn plastic bag. “I got the gout.” He winces. As a gout sufferer, I tell him I understand the despair of his constantly hammering pain.

He says God will decide if he catches the coronavirus.

“I gotta go. I gotta find a bathroom.”

He turns and limps across 42nd Street toward the subway entrance, holding his leftovers with his right hand and the waistband of his drooping trousers with his left.

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