The sight of a homeless person walking from car to car in a Philadelphia subway once turned heads. Not anymore: in recent years, there’s perhaps a quick glance at the vagrant, and then it’s back to the business at hand, which usually involves intense focus on a phone.
Philadelphia’s train vagabonds are a varied, distressing lot—from the small, older woman who twitches uncontrollably on the Market Street El to the younger homeless who pass through trains, carrying signs and announcing that they haven’t eaten since yesterday. “Anything will help, a sandwich, a quarter,” they plead. Commuters sometimes hear Dickensian monologues about starving children holed up in hotels or pregnant wives sitting under underpasses, waiting for those sandwiches.
Before the Covid-19 pandemic, it wasn’t uncommon to see stoned or homeless people sleeping on Philadelphia’s typically crowded subway trains. Earlier this year, these sleepers took up a significant number of commuter seats. In January, during the annual No Pants Subway Ride campaign, when riders drop their pants and give them to the homeless, sleepers made up at least 5 percent to 10 percent of each transit car—especially on early Sunday mornings.
Covid-19 significantly reduced ridership across SEPTA, the Philadelphia region’s public transportation system. In April, following the closure of stations and lockdown restrictions, ridership dropped by 79 percent; regional rail ridership plummeted by 96 percent. The usually busy rail lines appeared to serve only essential workers and homeless people riding to nearby drug markets. That same month, concerned about virus transmission, SEPTA banned the homeless from Upper Darby’s 69th Street Terminal, where they had been tacitly permitted to camp out.
After SEPTA enforced new Covid-19 rules and placed barrier decals to ensure social distancing, fewer homeless people were seen sleeping on trains, though many still ride the rails for hours in a semi-hypnotic, drugged state. Even in a pandemic, the trains serve as a kind of temporary home.
SEPTA ridership has started coming back with Philadelphia’s phased reopening—but the transit system’s homeless problem will inevitably return, too. According to Liz Hersh, director of Philadelphia’s Office of Homeless Services, city streets are home to about 850 unsheltered people. “They go somewhere,” she said. “They’re in the transit stations, underpasses, so it doesn’t surprise me that they ride trains or buses. When we don’t provide adequate places for people to live, then that happens.” Though SEPTA is cracking down on panhandling on trains—prohibited, yet still common—the problem of homeless sleepers is another matter. “With people just sitting and sleeping on the trains, how do you decide who’s who and what level of enforcement is justified?” Hersh asked.
Before the Covid-19 crisis, Hersh’s office and SEPTA had succeeded in moving many of the homeless from Suburban Station, Market Street East, and Jefferson Station—all major hubs for suburban commuters. “In 2016,” Hersh said, “there were 350 people in Suburban Station, but that is not the case now. The numbers are way down.” The problem now, she says, has become localized. “There are a few hot spots that we’re still working on. We’re not where we want to be, but we’re making progress.”
The city now lets shelters admit the homeless requiring only good behavior—not sobriety or even the presentation of a valid ID. This reform, no doubt, has resulted in fewer people living on the streets. The creation of additional shelters—including in North Philadelphia’s Kensington, an infamous open-air drug market—has also helped. Last year, the Office of Homeless Services had a $91 million budget that made the new beds possible. In addition, city groups such as Project Home, Broad Street Ministry, Angels in Motion, Prevention Point, and Ambassadors of Hope have helped reduce the homeless numbers.
Yet if one rode the Market–Frankford El to Kensington’s roughest parts, he wouldn’t see much improvement. Ascending the steps to the platform, he’d have to wrangle through a horde of hawkers, methadone zombies, and assorted buyers and sellers—many wearing masks. The so-called Walmart of Heroin doesn’t even begin to describe this neighborhood, where people arriving from around the country, with huge knapsacks, can be seen walking along streets and highways. When they’re tired of walking, they head to the Market–Frankford line and board a car—setting up camp amid the barrier decals.
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