It’s midnight at Times Square subway station in New York City and a homeless woman is screaming like a wounded animal and threatening commuters. Such scenes have become increasingly common in the underground system, where hundreds of homeless people, many with mental health issues, seek refuge every night. The situation has become a security issue, with the subway reeling from a spike in violent assaults.
In mid-January, a 40-year-old woman named Michelle Go was killed after she was pushed onto the tracks by a homeless man with mental health problems. Last year, the subway – which is open 24 hours a day, and comprises 472 stations – recorded its highest number of felony assaults since 1997, according to data from the New York Police Department (NYPD). A total of eight people were murdered on the subway system in 2021, including two homeless men who were stabbed to death by another homeless man. According to a survey by Quinnipiac University, published in February, 48% of travelers on the New York subway feel unsafe, while 62% say they feel more unsafe at night.
“Often you can’t sit down in the carriage because the entire row is taken up by a barefoot homeless person or a drunk, or both. If they are more or less awake, it’s better not to look them in the eyes, because they could get upset,” says Herbert, who takes the subway to go to work.
Repeating the failed outreach-based policing strategies of the past will not end the suffering of homeless people bedding down on the subwayShelly Nortz, Deputy Executive Director for Policy at Coalition for the Homeless
In a bid to tackle the problem, New York Mayor Eric Adams and the state governor, Kathy Hochul, announced in February a plan to improve security on the subway. The plan involves doubling the number of police officers on patrol in stations from 1,000 to 2,000 and deploying 30 teams of mental health workers. In the first week of the campaign, 455 people were removed from the subway system.
But the initiative has come under fire for failing to address the root causes of the problem. In the last week of February, 48,000 homeless people slept in shelters in the city, according to New York’s social services. But there is not space for everyone and it is estimated that at least 1,000 spend the night sleeping on trains or at stations.
What’s more, many of them have mental health problems, but the shift in focus from inpatient to outpatient modes of treatment – a process often referred to as “deinstitutionalization” – means there are fewer psychiatric beds available. And the already low number of beds has been cut even further due to the coronavirus pandemic. All this is further compounded by the institutional weakness of the US public health system, the growing number of people who have been evicted due to the economic crisis caused by the pandemic and the lack of affordable housing.
In this context, many experts say increasing police presence on the subway will do little to address the underlying problems fueling the security problem. “Repeating the failed outreach-based policing strategies of the past will not end the suffering of homeless people bedding down on the subway,” says Shelly Nortz, Deputy Executive Director for Policy at the NGO Coalition for the Homeless. “The Mayor’s own police department recently noted that those who shelter in the transit system are there because they believe they have no safer alternative. Criminalizing homelessness and mental illness is not the answer.”
Medical anthropologist Kim Hopper, from Columbia University, is similarly pessimistic about the security plan: “Without alternative housing, we are simply tricking the public by making them believe that we are providing a solution, when all that has happened is a massive displacement [of homeless people] and some improvised detention [hospital admission by court order]. It doesn’t work, and it won’t last like this.”
Elizabeth Bowen, from the Institution of Social Work at the University of Buffalo, agrees. “The city should consider the trauma that most homeless people have suffered. For many of them, this includes traumatic experiences with the police,” she says. “The city must be prepared to provide additional resources for [mental health] treatment and housing in order to address the root causes.”
Tony Manfredonia, a 53-year-old who has been living on the street since the 2008 financial crisis, knows better than anyone the complexity of the crisis. “I was sleeping in the subway until two days ago,” he says. “I had to leave in the early hours of the morning, because a [homeless] woman began to attack me, she was out of control, she kicked me and pricked me with a knife. I was very scared.” He adds: “Tonight I will sleep in a shelter in Brooklyn, but there are too many rules. In the subway, if your companions aren’t combative, you have more freedom. But of course, it’s not what you would call a life, at least not the one I had before.”