NYC Plans to Stop Homeless People From Sheltering on Subways

Mayor Eric Adams and Gov. Kathy Hochul announced on Friday an aggressive plan to deploy police officers and mental-health workers into New York City’s subway, pledging to remove more than 1,000 homeless people who shelter there regularly, some of whom have contributed to escalating violence and harassment in the system.

Starting Monday, the officials said, there will be a zero-tolerance policy — enforced by the hundreds of officers who already patrol the system — for people sleeping sprawled across train seats or in stations, or for other violations of the subway’s often flouted rules of conduct, including littering, unruly behavior and lingering in a station for over an hour.

Dozens of mental-health professionals with the power to order the involuntary hospitalization of people who they deem a danger to themselves or others will be added to outreach teams systemwide.

“No more just doing whatever you want,” Mr. Adams said at a news conference at a Lower Manhattan subway station. “Those days are over. Swipe your MetroCard, ride the system, get off at your destination. That’s what this administration is saying.”

The plan, which is aimed at ending the decades-old practice of people using the nation’s busiest transit system for shelter, comes as a spike in violent crime in the system, including several high-profile shoving incidents, has made public safety a paramount concern for many riders, with some saying it has caused them to avoid the subway.

Since plummeting at the onset of the pandemic, ridership been slow to rebound, recently reaching just over half of its prepandemic levels, and the system faces a perilous financial future. The subway’s long-term viability depends on more commuters returning.

The plan also comes in the wake of a horrific crime at the Times Square subway station last month, when a 40-year-old woman, Michelle Alyssa Go, was pushed in front of a train and a homeless man with a history of schizophrenia was charged with her murder.

Even as Mr. Adams acknowledged that “the vast majority of the unhoused and the mentally ill are not dangerous” to subway riders, his plan to evict those people from the transit system does not make such a distinction.

In addition to the enforcement measures, which drew immediate criticism from advocates for homeless people, the plan also includes changes that are meant to more effectively connect homeless people, many of whom have mentally illness, substance abuse problems or both, to mental-health services and permanent housing.

In 2021, the rates of violent crime in the subway per million weekday passengers were up almost across the board compared with 2019. Felony assaults in the system were up nearly 25 percent, despite the pandemic-fueled drop in ridership.

Thirty people were pushed onto the tracks in 2021, up from 20 in 2019 and nine in 2017, the police said.

“People tell me about their fear of using the system,” Mr. Adams said on Friday. “And we’re going to ensure that fear is not New York’s reality.”

The announcement came from not only the mayor and governor, but also the transit agency’s leader, the police commissioner and city and state mental-health officials, underscoring the seriousness of the issue and the central role that officials believe the subway will play in reviving the city’s economy.

Jeffrey Gural, the chairman of GFP Real Estate, praised Mr. Adams’s approach.

“In order to get people to come back to the city, which is critical, people have to feel safe riding the subways because that’s how most of them commute,” said Mr. Gural, whose company owns several dozen buildings in the city. “It’s just that simple.”

But the plan announced on Friday lacked some details and timelines, and given the chronic shortage of housing options that are palatable and affordable to most people who choose to live in the subway, it was unclear where those evicted en masse would immediately go, if not the streets. There was little discussion of the plan’s cost or how it would be paid.

Some advocates for transit riders said that an enforcement plan that integrated health care and supportive services was a positive step.

“No one should feel they have to live in the subways, and being homeless is not a crime,” said Lisa Daglian, the executive director of the transit authority’s citizens’ advisory committee, a watchdog group. “However, there must be actions for these teams to take to be able to remove those who may do harm to themselves or others. This decades-long issue requires long-term investment to find a solution.”

But Shelly Nortz, the deputy executive director for policy for the Coalition for the Homeless, said the plan would criminalize mental illness and homelessness.

“Repeating the failed outreach-based policing strategies of the past will not end the suffering of homeless people bedding down on the subway,” she said in a statement.

Ms. Nortz welcomed provisions of the plan that call for increasing the number of available psychiatric inpatient beds, shelters with private rooms and supportive housing, which comes with on-site social services.

But she was skeptical about expanding involuntary commitment at the cost of civil liberties, at a time when there is a desperate need for what she called “ready access to voluntary inpatient and outpatient psychiatric care, including medication.”

Warren Oates, a homeless man who was taking refuge from the cold at the Times Square station on Friday afternoon, said the police should not force people out of the subway if they are not trespassing into restricted areas of the system.

Mr. Oates, who is in his 50s, said officers should be “not here to provoke” but rather to be “just here serving the law.”

The precise number of people who live in the subway is unknown, but an annual survey in January 2021 estimated the figure at about 1,300 — and that was during the time when the system closed down for four hours every night for disinfecting. The number of homeless people in the system is believed to have increased since then. It was estimated at about 1,700 in January 2020, before the pandemic.

The city had already increased the police presence in the subway this year, deploying 1,000 additional officers to the system in early January. A week later, two officers were on the opposite end of the platform when Ms. Go was pushed to her death.

The mayor’s directive that officers enforce the code of conduct was an implicit acknowledgment that the Police Department had not been doing so rigorously. Mr. Adams said officers had been getting mixed messages on the subject: encouragement to enforce the rules, and condemnation when their efforts were captured on video and circulated on social media.

“I got your backs,” Mr. Adams, who was a transit officer himself. “Do your jobs. This is what you’re supposed to do.”

The plan tries to address a frequent complaint from homeless people and their advocates that mere “outreach,” in which a homeless person is typically offered a room in a barrackslike group shelter — an offer that is usually declined — is insufficient. The plan calls for the creation of about 500 new beds in private rooms.

Police officers will form teams with outreach workers and clinicians that will canvass stations and trains to steer homeless and mentally ill people out of the transit system and toward help, bringing people to hospitals when warranted.

The teams — there will be up to 30 — will focus on high-priority stations and train lines where either ridership or reported crime have increased, Keechant Sewell, the police commissioner, said.

The measures build on a state plan announced by Ms. Hochul last month to create similar “Safe Options Support” teams.

Taking broader aim at the problem of untreated mental illness, the plan calls for expanding the use of Kendra’s Law, which enables a judge to order someone into outpatient treatment.

The plan also calls on hospitals to reverse what has been a significant decrease in inpatient psychiatric beds over the past decade, which some experts say has contributed to the number of people with severe mental illness in the streets and the subway. Ms. Hochul said the state would increase Medicaid payments to hospitals for psychiatric beds.

And the plan addresses complaints from some organizations that serve homeless people that hospital emergency rooms refuse to admit some psychiatric patients they find too disruptive, or release them before they are stable or without adequate planning that would keep them from relapsing after being discharged.

Dr. Ann Marie T. Sullivan, the state mental health commissioner, said her agency would issue guidance to hospitals to ensure that the most severely ill patients — “a very small percentage of people” — are committed for longer stays.

“There are many rivers that feed the sea of homelessness,” Mr. Adams said, “and we have to dam every river if we are going to address this issue.”

Ana Ley contributed reporting.

Zubair Q Britania

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