OPINION: Roll Back Cuomo’s Anti-Homeless Subway Rules

The MTA used the cover of the pandemic to discriminate against unhoused New Yorkers. Two bills would end the abuse.

A homeless woman sleeps on the subway. Photo: lennyzgrl via flickr.com
A homeless woman sleeps on the subway. Photo: lennyzgrl via flickr.com

Gov. Cuomo’s announcement on Monday that that the subway will end its overnight subway closures is good news for many New Yorkers. But as we celebrate the return of 24-hour, seven-day-a week service, there is still much work to do to stop the MTA’s discriminatory policing and exclusion of homeless riders.

Since the pandemic began, the MTA has dramatically expanded its power to punish and eject homeless riders in ways that will outlast the overnight closures. Last April, the MTA used the COVID-19 emergency to pass new, explicitly anti-homeless rules — none of which has any bearing on sanitation, health, or safety —including a ban on wheeled carts over a certain size and on anyone staying in the “paid-fare zone” for more than an hour. After a rushed, barely publicized “public input” process (which received no actual public input), and without any evidence-based rationale for the rules’ permanent adoption, the MTA quietly made these edicts permanent a few months later.

Homeless activists and their allies are now working with State Sen. Jessica Ramos and Assembly Member Alicia Hyndman to pass Senate Bill 3226 and Assembly Bill a6169, which would immediately roll back the rules and curb the MTA’s ability to pass anti-homeless policies without any meaningful input from riders. Homeless activists (including our group, Picture the Homeless) also filed a lawsuit against the MTA in February, arguing that these policies were arbitrary, capricious, unsupported by any public-health rationale, and blatantly discriminatory.

As hopeful as we are about these efforts to push back against MTA abuse, we are frustrated that we have to make such an effort. People need to be able to ride the trains in peace, whether they are homeless or housed. All MTA riders should have the right to get to where they need to get to safely and to move around freely throughout the city.

As we noted last May, these policies are just a part of a long history of the MTA’s scapegoating of the homeless. The MTA has a track record of blaming its inability to provide safe, efficient, and sanitary service on homeless New Yorkers — for example, publishing annual data on “homeless related” transit delays, which make up a small (and questionable) fraction of the system’s overall delays — while doing nothing to improve conditions for subway riders, homeless or housed.

These policies make life even more difficult for those going through the trauma of homelessness. Homeless people already encounter so much discrimination and racism in New York City. We are already going through hell, and we don’t need the MTA to make our lives even more difficult. People sleep on the train because they have no other option — a situation that the governor and mayor have created — and homeless people should not be targeted by police or surveillance while they simply are trying to survive underground. Homeless people are often the victims of crime. We are in the subway system for our own safety, a fact which so many people choose to ignore.

The police harass homeless people constantly — not because the latter are doing anything illegal, but simply because passengers don’t want them in their presence. As a homeless person, you can just be minding your own business and approached by police at any time. When you get to the last stops, you’re targeted by MTA employees, cops, and everybody.

Cuomo has made the situation even worse with his anti-homeless remarks. If we don’t want the subway system to look how it did before, then the state needs to fund programs and housing vouchers in order to help people to get the housing assistance and respect they need. Cuomo made a mistake by not investing in vouchers or housing, mental-health treatment programs, and similar efforts that get people out of the shelters and subway and into permanent homes. People are traumatized just by being homeless, outdoors and not unable to sleep securely at night — so it is not surprising that friction can occur between people who are homeless and those who are just trying to get to where they need to go in peace.

We hope that the end of the overnight closures brings fresh attention to the policing of homeless New Yorkers in the subway, and we encourage Streetsblog readers to join us in pushing back on the MTA’s anti-homeless policies. Homeless riders deserve to be treated with the same respect as any other rider. The MTA’s practice of scapegoating and criminalizing our homeless community is a broken government policy that fails to provide anyone with the services they need.

Marcus Moore (@MooreMMedia) is a longtime member and board member and Jenny Akchin (@jennyaction) is a former staff member of Picture the Homeless. Picture the Homeless is part of the #HomelessCantStayHome campaign to address the needs of homeless New Yorkers during COVID-19.