New York City’s homeless population has faced a particularly brutal winter as coronavirus restrictions have kept the subway and other indoor public spaces closed.
On a piercingly cold December night, a handful of homeless passengers sought refuge on heated subway trains rumbling deep into Brooklyn. But when they arrived at the end of the line just after 1 a.m., those riders awoke to a grim reality: The subway was shutting down and they would have to leave.
Some slipped out of the Stillwell Avenue Station and disappeared into the shadows of nearby buildings in search of a safe place to sleep. Others slumped onto a bus stop bench, burying their heads and hands deep inside puffy winter coats to brace against the frigid temperatures from the ocean, steps away, in Coney Island.
A few simply refused to leave the station, prompting police officers to drag them out.
For decades, the city’s sprawling subway system has offered a shelter of last resort for thousands of homeless New Yorkers. Particularly during the winter months, many who are wary of the city’s often crowded and sometimes violent shelters descend into the system from the parks and streets above, seeking sanctuary in its round-the-clock trains.
But last spring, when the pandemic ripped through New York and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo mandated that the city’s famously 24-hour subway system be shut down overnight for disinfection, that safe haven vanished.
Now, homeless people living on the streets are confronting a dangerous mix of winter weather and a lack of indoor public spaces — like subway stations, trains and fast-food restaurants — that once offered a respite each night.
“I’ve tried everything, everything, but there is nowhere else to go,” said Justin MacDonald, 66, who became homeless last spring after losing his job as an office cleaner. With the subway no longer an option, he has been spending nights on the Staten Island Ferry, which is operated by the city and continues to run its 25-minute trips in each direction overnight. Also, the ferry is free.
“You can’t sleep, you just have to sit there,” he said. “But at least it’s warm on the ferry, as opposed to the street.”
In response to the subway shutdown, the city has ramped up its outreach program, deploying a small army of workers to try to coax people into shelters. New York, unlike most other American cities, is required under a decades-old court order to provide emergency shelter to anyone with no place to stay.
But those on the streets or in the subway today tend to be the least open to the city’s services, outreach workers say, creating a particularly precarious situation since the pandemic ripped away the informal social safety nets on which many homeless people relied.
The 24-hour diners and fast-food restaurants that doubled at night as heated havens for those with a few dollars to spare have largely been closed for indoor dining since March. Friends and family, whose couches or spare rooms are often a landing pad for recently homeless people, have been wary of allowing anyone from outside their household to stay with them for fear of contracting the virus.
At the same time, the city’s unemployment rate reached its highest level in nearly half a century in May, and thousands of low-wage New Yorkers became even more susceptible to homelessness — a troubling development in a city where the number of single, homeless adults had reached record highs even before the pandemic.
“Every winter we prepare for an increased number of single adults seeking shelter,” said Steven Banks, commissioner of the New York City Human Resources Administration, which oversees homeless services. “Particularly this winter, as the subway shut down and other pandemic restrictions continue, we have made sure more specialized beds are available.”
Since the beginning of December, the city has opened 125 new beds in specialized shelters and will add 175 more by mid-February, according to the agency.
Mr. Cuomo — who controls the New York transit agency — has said that the subway would resume 24-hour operations when the pandemic is over. The governor has been heavily criticized for the shutdown, which transit advocates say hurts thousands of essential workers who have been forced to find alternative ways to travel.
The transit agency also came under fire for a recent tweet from its official account saying that benches had been removed in a Manhattan subway station to prevent homeless people from sleeping on them. The tweet was later deleted and the agency released a statement saying that it had been posted by mistake.
For many homeless people the closure has created a daunting challenge each night: Where will they sleep?
On a recent night in South Ferry, the Manhattan terminus for the Staten Island Ferry, Mr. MacDonald sat on the edge of an escalator, head buried in his hands, as he waited for the 2:30 a.m. trip to Staten Island.
After losing his job as an office cleaner in March, he could no longer afford the $150 weekly rent for his room in a shared apartment in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn. When his landlord told him to leave, Mr. MacDonald sought shelter wherever he could imagine.
He slept on public buses until his backpack was stolen. He sought out secluded street corners in the Financial District in Lower Manhattan until it became too cold to sleep outside. He rode the Q train one night to the end of the line in Brooklyn, where an outreach worker persuaded him to go to a shelter in Midtown Manhattan. But he left after seeing some residents using drugs and others urinating on the walls of the dormitory-style room.
“I would rather die than stay in a place like that,” he said. “I left immediately. I just walked the streets instead.”
Since the shutdown began, the city has sent hundreds of homeless outreach workers to stations at the end of subway lines late at night. From the beginning of May through the end of January, 750 people have been placed in shelters and remain there today, according to city-data.
The city also increased its network of specialized shelters with private or shared rooms and few restrictions, like curfews or sobriety rules, an option that outreach workers can offer homeless people deemed capable of living relatively independently. Many prefer to avoid dormitory-style shelters because they fear theft, violence or being exposed to the coronavirus.