Experts warn closing the New York subway will have a ‘devastating’ impact on the homeless.
The system will shut down every night for cleaning, forcing homeless on to streets or into shelters where over 700 have tested positive
New measures to close the New York subway for nightly coronavirus cleaning will have “devastating” consequences for the thousands of homeless people who regularly sleep there, experts have warned.
Starting on Wednesday, for the first time in its history the usual 24-hour service will shut down every night between 1 am and 5 am to be disinfected in a bid to improve travel conditions for essential workers during the Covid-19 outbreak.
But homelessness groups and charities said the move will have “counterproductive and harmful” impacts for those who seek safety and shelter in subway trains and stations – forcing them on to the streets or into the city’s shelters, where more than 700 people have tested positive for coronavirus in recent weeks.
“It’s actually extraordinarily counterproductive and harmful,” said Giselle Routhier, policy director at Coalition for the Homeless, which works with 3,500 people in New York every day.
“What’s happening is that large groups of police officers are gathering at the end of the [subway] line, telling people to move, forcing people often to the streets, offering them access to congregate shelters which many are rightfully refusing to enter because of the safety issues and not actually offering real solutions to help people access a safer space.”
New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, who recently referred to a picture of homeless people on the subway as “disgusting” and “disrespectful to the essential workers”, made the announcement about closures last week amid concerns about conditions on the subway. More homeless people are thought to be seeking shelter on trains, while passenger numbers have dropped by 92%.
Routhier said the new policy will encourage a “more punitive approach”, leaving homeless people vulnerable to the elements and potentially the criminal justice system.
Conditions for New York’s homeless are already “dire”, she added, especially with many of the city’s cafes, restaurants, public bathrooms, gyms, and food banks that many rely on for hygiene and nourishment closed. Demand for Coalition for the Homeless’s mobile food program has doubled on some nights.
Meanwhile, the virus is spreading in the city’s shelters – which many homeless people already feared for safety reasons before the outbreak. As of Tuesday, there had been 829 positive cases – 705 of which were in shelters – and 65 deaths.
“I don’t know that there’s really a precedent in our lifetime,” she said. “What we’re seeing now is a devastating event that is continuing to go on and on.”
Currently, 62,679 people are living in New York’s shelters, but this does not include the thousands living on the city’s streets and subway – a number which experts say is growing as the economic impact of the pandemic takes hold.
Joshua Goldfein, an attorney at the Legal Aid Society and a member of its Homeless Rights Project, said all homeless people should be offered hotel rooms.
“We have tens of thousands of empty hotel rooms in New York City right now, and rates that those hotels are asking for those rooms are much lower than they were before this, and Fema [Federal Emergency Management Agency] is going to pay for that, so it would be very simple to move people into hotel rooms, to offer case management services on site.”
The city said it is using hotels, but that it is prioritizing relocating older people and single adults “based on risk” from larger shelters. So far, they said about 7,000 people have been moved to hotels from shelters, with plans for 1,000 more “each week as needed”.
Under the new subway plan, more than 100 outreach workers will be deployed to 30 high-priority stations to “engage” homeless people when it closes about services, assess them for symptoms and connect them to care, isolation or shelter.
For essential workers, there will be extra buses between 1 am and 5 am and an “essential connector” program of free cabs.