Midnight on February 26, on a platform at the Times Square subway station. A parade of ghosts zigzags between those who wait; some conscious, asking for money or mumbling, others lost in thought, while a half-dressed woman, heavily painted red and dragging a cart with bags and cardboard, bursts into cries of a wounded animal. Alienated, she confronts the travelers and threatens them. Most users back off and seek the shelter of the walls, fear in their eyes. But the suspicion and mistrust that the New York subway arouses at some hours is nothing compared to the morning in mid-January in which a 40-year-old woman who was waiting at that station to go to work was pushed by a man to the via. Two policemen patrolled the opposite platform.
The random murder of Michelle Go at the hands of a homeless person with serious mental problems and a history of minor crimes put the focus on security in the New York subway, open 24 hours a day, 472 stations and hundreds of kilometers of tracks that mobilize a dysfunctional city in terms of transportation: its urban buses are the slowest in the US. The identity of the aggressor also raised an added factor: the subway as a shelter for hundreds of homeless people, many of them diagnosed by mental health services and that, as if it were a revolving door, they enter and leave the hospital to the subway or the shelter, in any order. The last week of February, an average of 48,000 homeless people slept in the shelters, according to the city’s social services, out of almost nine million inhabitants. But there are not places for everyone, and many – it is estimated that at least a thousand – spend the night at the stations or in the cars.
Mortally wounded by the pandemic, which finished off its deficit -the number of travelers on weekdays did not exceed three million until last February, 43% less than before-, the New York subway cannot afford bad press, it is also going at it the recovery of the city. The Mayor, Eric Adams, and the Governor of the State, Kathy Hochul, announced in February a plan to improve the security of the underground, with the additional deployment of a thousand police officers -there were already a thousand patrolling-, as well as 30 intervention teams psychosocial. An initiative that, according to the NGOs, criminalizes the most vulnerable and that, since its application, has been criticized for its ineffectiveness. Almost half a thousand people (455) were expelled during the first week of the campaign.
The NGO Coalition for the Homeless has described the plan as nauseating. “Repeating the failed policing strategies of the past will not end the suffering of homeless people sleeping on the subway. It’s disgusting to hear the mayor compare the homeless on the subway to cancer. They are human beings. The police department itself recently said that those who take refuge in the transport system do so for lack of safer alternatives. Criminalizing homelessness and mental illness is not the answer,” says Shelly Nortz, deputy executive director of the NGO.
Lack of psychiatric beds
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In the nightmare of the New York subway, in addition to dirt and rats, many causes come together like a torrent. The elimination of psychiatric beds derived from the process of deinstitutionalization (closure of the old asylums and comprehensive, psychosocial approach to the patient in the community); the embargo of part of the rest to respond to the pandemic (600 beds, according to Nortz); the congenital weakness of the public health system; evictions due to the economic and health crisis (the moratorium that protected defaulters ended in January), the lack of affordable housing… and New York’s own image crisis due to a wave of rampant violence.
Tony Manfredonia, 53, homeless since the Great Recession left him with nothing, can talk about all this. “I slept in the subway until two days ago but I had to leave at dawn because a woman began to attack me, out of her mind, she kicked me and stabbed me with a knife. I got very scared, ”he says about a companion in misfortune with whom he shared, among a dozen, the lobby of a Manhattan station. “Sometimes I sleep in hostels but if you arrive late, all the places are taken. The clothes have been given to me in a church and I eat what I find out there, leftovers from restaurants or expired food from the supermarkets, ”he explains, pointing to the neat navy blue trench coat that protects him from the cold. “Tonight I will sleep in a hostel in Brooklyn, but there are too many rules. On the subway, if your colleagues are not conflictive, you have more freedom. But of course it is not what can be called life, at least not the one I had before”. The man says he has not had any problems with the police since the subway campaign began.
The number of assaults and murders in the suburban registered its highest number since 1997 in 2021, according to police data released at the end of January, although thefts and robberies were reduced. Eight murders in 12 months, with an episode as terrible as the stabbing death of two homeless people on line A by another homeless man, who also badly injured two other homeless people, during a maddened hunting 24 hour random. According to a survey by Quinnipiac University (Connecticut) published in early February, 48% of commuters on the New York subway say they feel unsafe, compared to 40% who say the opposite. Fear increases at night, up to 62%.
An urban pathology
Herbert and Laurie, a clerical couple who take the subway to work, confess that their feeling of unease is growing. “Many times you can’t even sit in the car because the entire seat is occupied by a barefoot or drunk bum or both. If he is more or less aware, it is better not to look him in the eye, because he may get angry, let alone recriminate him, ”explains Herbert at the exit of a station. “I don’t know if the mayor’s plan will work, but the subway needs a comprehensive reform, and safety is the first step. It is not a hotel, nor a hospital for the mentally ill. Paul, coordinator of a youth orchestra, points out, however, that he is the same as always, and that his main concern is that someone without a mask approaches him. “It is neither better nor worse. Neither insecurity is new nor does the feeling of fear seem so justified to me, I think there is a lot of media alarm, in addition to an attempt to get medals with the cleaning of the facilities”, he explains at a station on Line 1.
Years of negligence and inattention in the provision of social services – the public sector is also almost anathema in the US – have entrenched the deficiencies of the subway, turning it into an urban pathology. The lack of psychiatric beds and a law -emerged as a result of another deadly push on the subway, in 2013- that allows the forced admission of a person in a mental health unit contradict each other; law to which by the way the mayor’s plan resorts. The psychosocial intervention teams, which include a couple of police officers, currently evaluate the situation of the homeless in six lines, but many believe that it is a cosmetic solution.
Columbia University medical anthropologist Kim Hopper, with 25 years of experience in the city’s mental health services, makes no secret of his pessimism about the City’s plan. “This problem arose many years ago. Today we have even more evidence of the importance of supportive housing (and making it easier to access) for people struggling with mental health issues and experiencing homelessness. With no alternative housing, we simply mislead the public into believing there is a solution, when all that has happened is mass displacement coupled with some impromptu retention [ingreso hospitalario por orden judicial]. It doesn’t work, so it won’t last.”
Elizabeth Bowen, from the Institute of Social Work at the University at Buffalo (New York), expresses herself in similar terms: “The city should consider the trauma that most homeless people have suffered. For many, this includes traumatic experiences with the police. The best approach would be to work with community mental health teams, without police, who are clinically trained. The emphasis should be on connecting those people with permanent treatment and housing, not on suppress those who sleep on trains because they have no other safe options. This also means that the city must be prepared to provide additional resources for treatment and housing to address the root causes.”
Christa, a 17-year-old student who travels by subway every day, tries to understand with evident reluctance what the journalist is referring to when she asks about the insecurity in the underground. “Insecure? Neither safe nor insecure, I don’t read the news or watch the news. It is better not to know anything. And during the journey I only watch videos on TikTok or some series on my mobile, she says, barely looking up from the screen. Is the New York subway really dangerous, really?
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