As New York City rebounds from COVID-19 and the potential return of a 24/7 subway system draws nearer, several nonprofit groups want the city and state to come up with a substantive plan to stop the “root causes” of homelessness in the subway system.
In an open letter penned to Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo, the three organizations – Coalition for the Homeless, Human.nyc and Riders Alliance – called for city and state leadership to invest in housing and safe shelters, rather than relying on a surge in police in the city’s underground to combat homelessness inside the transit system.
“Relying on agencies that cannot actually house people, such as the police, to engage homeless people will only exacerbate their trauma and force unsheltered New Yorkers to move around, breaking their ties with outreach teams and extending their homelessness,” the letter reads. “Housing is the answer to homelessness, and it is essential that the state and city address the root causes of this crisis in order to reduce the number of our neighbors who resort to sleeping in the transit system.”
Last month, an additional 644 police officers were deployed into the subway system following the stabbing deaths of two people, both victims of a 21-year-old homeless man with a history of mental illness.
However, the nonprofits don’t see the law enforcement surge as a useful tool to combating the root causes of homelessness. Instead, the organizations posed several policy changes to both the mayor and governor that they say would get unhoused people into homes and out of the subways.
“Subway homelessness continues to be met with policies that are not only cruel, but also counterproductive,” said Josh Dean, the executive director of Human.nyc. “When Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio send the NYPD to target homeless New Yorkers and agree to shut down the subways, they aren’t addressing homelessness. Rather, they are simply moving it from the subways to the streets.”
To the governor, the letter requests the reopening of a 24/7 subway system, the passage of the Home Stability Support and the Housing Access Voucher Program to help people obtain stable housing, an acceleration of the governor’s commitment to build 20,000 supportive housing units and an investment into more voluntary mental health care.
“The governor runs the MTA but he’s also the governor of the whole state, responsible for addressing all of our pressing problems,” said Danny Pearlstein, the policy and communications director of Riders Alliance. “No one wants to live on the subway, but until the state invests in safe and private, humane and sustainable options, New Yorkers will be forced to continue living in public space. The governor should marshal sufficient state resources to actually solve the housing problems facing people who resort to sleeping on the subway.”
To the mayor, the letter recommends the expansion of the stabilization bed program and housing unsheltered New Yorkers in hotel rooms for the duration of the pandemic, an increase the dollar amount of the city’s CityFHEPS housing vouchers, an expansion the city’s supportive housing capacity and the hiring of formerly homeless New Yorkers to work as peer outreach workers.
“Both prior to and during the life-threatening pandemic, New York’s homelessness policies have been plagued by false starts, deliberate under-funding of local needs, and heavy-handed policing with far too little investment in the solutions proven to work,” said Shelly Nortz, the deputy executive director for policy at Coalition for the Homeless. “Access to housing and community-based mental health care for those with the most serious mental illnesses has been abysmal in recent years. It is crucial that we do all we can to protect those dealing with homelessness and mental health issues by ensuring access to expert care and housing.”
A spokesperson for the MTA agreed that the city needs to invest more in mental health resources and that an infusion of police officers isn’t a catchall solution to the unhoused population in transit system.
“We’re glad the advocates are now interested in tackling this problem with solutions and acknowledge the subway is not a substitute for a shelter,” a spokesperson from the transit agency said. “We have always been clear that police alone will not solve the mental health crisis underground and that an infusion of mental health resources is needed from City Hall. For New Yorkers to return to the system they need to feel safe from COVID and safe from crime and the MTA will continue to do everything it can to protect its customers and employees.”
The Mayor’s office did not respond to request for comment prior to press time.
Read the letter in full here.
Editor’s note: This story was updated at 6:58 p.m. with a statement from the MTA.