An old woman scowls at passersby as she squats in a nest of plastic bags and bundles arranged on four seats on the Herald Square Q, N, and R subway platform. At one end of the platform, a man cups a cigarette in his palm, indifferent to the confused frowns of those around him. Across the tracks, on the northbound side, a man with matted hair declaims against an invisible adversary, while an almost visible stink clears a path as he paces up and down. The station reeks like soiled laundry and sweat because at least a half-dozen people are camped out here, wearing sweaty, soiled clothes steamed by the heat and moisture of thousands of subway riders maneuvering through the station at every hour.
A southbound Q train rolls in, and footsore riders are grateful when they glimpse an empty car, but they discover that all those empty seats are too good to be true: someone has parked a large, overladen cart at one end, settled into the two-seater for an afternoon snooze, and defied anyone to endure the foul-smelling air just to have a subway seat. So the fragrant passenger on the Q train retains his private car, while exasperated riders pile into already-crowded adjacent cars.
New York has experienced such a visible increase in homelessness that the de Blasio administration finally had to acknowledge last summer what everyone knew to be true, after years of denial: permanent encampments exist across the city, with clusters of carts and lean-tos in various lots and around off-ramps in the outer boroughs and people camped out in discarded office chairs with piles of blankets and boxes in the blocks around Penn Station.
The de Blasio administration’s response is to question the hardiness of those who complain of rampant homelessness and tolerance of antisocial behavior. The mayor implies that real New Yorkers tolerate filth and anarchy as an urban feature, perhaps even an amenity. It’s probably no coincidence that de Blasio avoids the subway, zooming through midmorning traffic so that he can enjoy his low-impact workout at the Park Slope YMCA, thereby avoiding the sight of the city’s deteriorating conditions.
It’s obvious to daily commuters that more panhandlers and long-term indigent or distressed individuals are using the trains and subway stations for shelter, a place to sleep, or simply a place that they won’t be forced to leave. The next time that you hear about a “sick rider” causing a delay, consider why there are more homeless in prominent public spaces than we’ve seen in New York for decades; why Penn Station resembles the Bellevue Hospital waiting room; why urine has once again become the inescapable fragrance of New York’s streets and subway stairwells. How can one not conclude that the de Blasio administration sees the hundreds of vagrants riding the trains or camped in stations as a problem that it doesn’t have to deal with? After all, as the mayor likes to remind his critics, the subway isn’t the city’s responsibility.
While letting vagrants camp out on trains or colonize a subway platform does not create homeless individuals, it does attract them from other locales. It’s a demoralizing situation for New Yorkers, especially those who depend on subways, with the modest expectation of a ride home without being accosted by a beggar or a deranged person off his meds. It’s also dispiriting to find the doorways of one’s building soaked in urine, or to have to negotiate with a possibly belligerent drunk taking his party out on to the front stoop. In the city’s tonier neighborhoods, co-op boards can handle this sort of unpleasantness. The rest of us have to depend on city government to maintain livable and decent conditions in our neighborhoods. Unfortunately, Mayor de Blasio must operate on the principle that if you never go down into the coal mine, you won’t have to see any sick canaries.