New York City has announced that it will deploy more than 1,000 cops to help reduce the number of homeless people in the subways. This is a welcome announcement: allowing subway cars to function as mobile homeless shelters is unfair to Metropolitan Transportation Authority frontline staff, dozens of whom have died from Covid-19, and to New Yorkers still riding public transit. And in a wider sense, it diminishes public confidence in New York’s ability to reopen to commuters and tourists.
Homeless advocates, who oppose all efforts to regulate the unsheltered population, maintain that the city should leave the homeless alone unless it provides adequate housing options for all of them. Similar logic was applied in a 2018 federal court case, Martin v. City of Boise, that struck down local regulations on encampments. The Centers for Disease Control has provided some support for this perspective by claiming that dispersing the street homeless risks spreading the coronavirus.
But not dispersing the street homeless creates more traditional public health risks. What city wants to deal with an outbreak of hepatitis A or hepatitis C, especially now? A few hundred street homeless scattered throughout an area pose less serious public-health risks than a few hundred, or even a few dozen, concentrated in an encampment. This point is less appreciated in New York because, even under the de Blasio administration, New York has always taken a stronger line on above-ground concentrations of homeless than West Coast cities. If anything, given that New York City grants a uniquely expansive right to shelter and spends more than $3 billion annually on shelter and other services for the homeless, it should possess more legal leverage to address unsheltered homeless than any city in the nation. Whether it chooses to use that leverage, though, is another question.
The Covid-19 pandemic has forced governments to respond rapidly to a host of unforeseen policy challenges. New York has had abundant experience dealing with the problem of homeless people on the subways. Former MTA head Andy Byford, concerned by declining ridership trends, often emphasized the need for more urgency on homelessness to improve riders’ experience. Last year, de Blasio tried to launch a new “diversion” program for the subways. New York’s annual “HOPE count” always finds that about half of the unsheltered population lives in the public transit system.
It’s true that the homeless seem to be at greater risk of catching Covid-19 in shelters than on the streets. Only 5 percent of confirmed cases among New York’s homeless have been in the unsheltered population. Officially, city government remains committed to moving the street homeless into the shelter system, and city outreach workers have technically made thousands of “engagements” throughout the pandemic. Nevertheless, someone who lives in a subway car poses a much more serious Covid-19 risk to himself and others than someone living on the street.
The city’s halting response to the recent disorder on the subways does not inspire confidence in how it will deal with similar challenges when New York reopens. The subways are not the only confined public space in which the homeless concentrate. With the warmer weather, New York’s 3,000 street homeless, as well as many of the 17,000 sheltered single-adult population, will be looking for air-conditioned spots in which to spend their daytime hours. They will gravitate toward any available mall, food court, privately owned public space, transit hub, or library. Indoor spaces may be subject to reduced-occupancy regulations, but who will enforce those rules? If a space can legally accommodate only 15 people, what happens when 15 homeless men decide that they want to spend all afternoon there?
Experienced managers of public spaces in New York seek an equilibrium between the homeless and non-homeless. When, through a combination of beautification and programming, a space like Bryant Park becomes sufficiently attractive to the non-homeless, a certain portion of homeless can easily be accommodated, and with no need to resort to formal enforcement measures. But the coming months will see minimal tourism in New York, with many office workers continuing to work from home and a much more cautious attitude toward public space, especially confined public space. It may not be possible to rely on the natural regulatory mechanisms accommodating shared spaces; more formal enforcement, by government authorities, may be needed.
Nothing should be taken for granted. In states that have begun to reopen, the public has shown tentativeness. New York should try to learn as much as it can from, say, Georgia. But it should also learn from itself. The crisis on the subways during March and April shows how not to provide an essential service during extraordinary times.
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