Nine months into his term as the MTA’s New York City Transit chief, British expatriate Andy Byford has encountered a problem more intractable than fixing subway infrastructure: dealing with New York’s chronic problem of homeless and itinerant people, many of them mentally ill, who use the transit system as a place to shelter, to beg for money, or to “perform” for tips. Byford deserves kudos for acknowledging this problem, and how it deters paying customers from using subways, which many transit advocates ignore. This week, though, he did something less admirable: when faced with the complexities of making the subways more welcoming environment to passengers, he blamed the reporter who accurately covered the story.
People have been living in or begging in the transit system for decades, because other options are often worse. Compared with the disorderly city shelters, the subway system is safer. This summer, an elderly man was murdered at a Brooklyn homeless shelter; six months earlier, a man was stabbed to death in front of a shelter. And during part of the year, of course, it’s warmer in the subway system than out on the streets. As MTA board member Susan Metzger observed Monday, the “significant weather change” over the past two weeks has spurred a noticeably greater number of people to seek shelter underground. The city’s most recent spring count of the unsheltered homeless found 3,675 people—48 percent of whom, or 1,771 people, were in the subways at night. During the day, the transit system offers the homeless a way of making money by importuning passersby.
But the subway system is quasi-private property, and it has rules. Riders cannot take up more than one seat on a train or lie down in a public area. People can’t solicit money, whether in return for “entertainment” or otherwise. Failure to comply can result in fine, ejection, or arrest. Subway riders know that these rules usually get enforced in the breach, and that the number of people sleeping, begging, and performing on the trains seems to be growing. It’s not a leap of faith to assume that increasing disorder is spurring riders to flee the system, frustrated as they already are with unpredictable service. As Julia Vitullo-Martin, a longtime urban thinker, tweeted Tuesday night, “tonight on #3 train, a v[ery] dirty woman accosted every passenger on my car twice, followed by a huge angry man who grabbed a bag of food from a woman and then threatened her. Not OK.”
Enter Byford, who, on Monday, offered a welcome change to New York’s enforcement policy. On Monday, the transit chief said that “anti-social behavior” like “lying across a seat . . . or making a mess is not acceptable. That crosses the line.” Referring to the MTA’s newly installed subway-station general managers, he said that he wanted them to work “in conjunction with [NYPD police] officers” to “bear down on” the behavior of “being offensive, obnoxious . . . that we’re not prepared to tolerate.”
New York Post reporter Danielle Furfaro straightforwardly reported what Byford had said. Byford “unveiled a crackdown on subway vagrants Monday—directing station managers to remove homeless people who take up multiple seats and make a mess,” she wrote. “Byford told staffers to leave people alone on a train or in a station if they are in a single seat, but to call the cops if the vagrants are engaging in ‘antisocial’ behavior.”
Other reporters cited some complexities that Byford didn’t discuss. “It’s a losing battle,” one transit cop told the paper. “We’ve got to deal with the same people every day. It’s not a solution. . . . They need more help than just a cop telling them to move.” One homeless man complained: “Put in more f–king benches.” Homeless advocates, too, had some strong words for Byford. “What he’s saying is unhelpful overall,” Coalition for the Homeless policy director Giselle Routhier said. “The approach should be relationship-building.”
Faced with the details and the criticism from advocates, Byford blamed the messenger. Wednesday, during a press conference, he slammed Furfaro, saying that “facts are important,” and insisting on explaining “what I actually said.” But Furfaro and her colleagues never reported that the transit chief had called for “mass evictions” or that “we’re going to go around arresting” everyone, as Byford charged. Byford also chastised Furfaro for not reporting that he had called the vagrancy situation a “societal problem”—something that everyone already knows.
Byford can’t claim European innocence about the problem of vagrancy. London is full of migrants from as well as native homeless sleeping in doorways and near railway properties (though London’s Tube enforces rules against begging, vagrants do sleep there). Much of Continental Europe is worse.
At best, Byford’s outburst suggests a certain naiveté. Police don’t make arrests in the vast majority of their interactions with the homeless, but what does he think a team of police officers should do when someone won’t leave a station where he has set up camp? Whenever you call in the cops—as Byford essentially did on Monday—you are cosigning the possible use of force. Otherwise, there’s no need for armed police.
No empathetic New Yorker wants to see homeless subway dwellers kicked to the streets. It’s worth noting that the city, state, and MTA have been trying to deal with this problem for 40 years—indeed, Byford made his “bear down” comments during a regular update on the MTA’s longstanding nonprofit homeless-outreach program. Last winter, the MTA’s nonprofit outreach team “placed” 400 people into city shelters, mostly temporarily. “Outreach” is difficult work; many homeless people are already familiar with the options, especially for single-male adults, and refuse help.
Byford seems torn between his genuine desire to deliver cleaner, more inviting subway stations for New Yorkers and his aversion to making the hard choices necessary for that to happen. Ultimately, he can’t have it both ways.
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