Homeless New Yorkers say they have nowhere safe to sleep now that the subway is shutting down for nightly cleanings

A subway car in New York City, New York.

caption
A subway car in New York City, New York.
source
Daniel Brown/Business Insider
  • New York City’s subway system is now closed between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. for daily cleaning.
  • The subways have long provided refuge to homeless New Yorkers, who now say they don’t have anywhere safe to stay overnight.
  • The homeless have been sent to shelters, the conditions of which are susceptible to a coronavirus outbreak.
  • The daily subway closures are “extraordinarily counterproductive and harmful,” said Giselle Routhier, policy director at Coalition for the Homeless.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

For the first time in its 115-year history, the New York City subways have been shuttered from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. each morning, allowing workers to disinfect some 6,418 subway cars.

“The reason we’re taking this extraordinary, unprecedented action is to protect the safety and public health of our customers and our employees,” Patrick J. Foye, chair of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, said at a press conference earlier in May.

Typically, more than 2,000 homeless New Yorkers sleep in a subway car on a given night. The shutdown endangers their safety, according to homeless people and advocates, and the government is not doing enough to help them.

‘I want what many people take for granted’

“Ultimately, I want what many people take for granted,” Denis Dugan, a homeless New Yorker, wrote in the New York Daily News on Tuesday. “A safe, private space, somewhere I can protect myself from coronavirus.”

Dugan has been sleeping on subway cars for two years. It’s better than the shelters, he said, where his belongings could be stolen and he doesn’t feel safe.

“You would think, in a pandemic, one would see some empathy and compassion,” Dugan continued, slamming Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s declaration that the people sleeping on subways are “disgusting” and “disrespectful to the essential workers.”

Like Dugan, anti-homelessness advocates have railed against the shutdown.

“It’s actually extraordinarily counterproductive and harmful,” Giselle Routhier, policy director at Coalition for the Homeless, told The Guardian.

“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,” Routhier said.

Without subway cars, homeless people are sent to shelters, where there’s a high risk of getting the virus

Since the subway shutdowns began, the Department of Homeless Services (DHS) has expelled homeless New Yorkers from the transit lines and offered to take them to shelters. On the first night of the DHS effort, some 139 people were taken from the subways to a shelter, said Mayor Bill de Blasio.

“That’s an extraordinary number for one night and very encouraging,” de Blasio said.

Some homeless people have been taken to the 30th Street Men’s Shelter, one of the busiest in the city.

“I can’t think of a worse place than 30th Street,” Josh Dean, director of Human NYC, told The City. “How dangerous is it to take these people off the subway and put them in this one place?”

By May 5, more than 800 homeless people tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus – and 85% were in shelters, according to The City. At least 65 homeless people have died.

A handful of homeless people have been put in hotels

“Right now, thousands of hotel rooms are empty because of the shutdown,” Dugan wrote.

“Why not use them to shelter homeless people like me? It would be life-changing and help me move forward,” he said. “But instead of being offered a hotel room, I am offered to return to the shelter. I truly fear the shelters.”

According to a DHS spokesperson, about 250 homeless people, especially elderly people and those with compromised immune systems, have been given empty hotel rooms, The City reported.

Known as “isolation hotels,” advocates like Routhier say the city needs to make them widely available.

“It is flat out dangerous and disingenuous of the mayor to transport unhoused people to congregate shelters where COVID-19 is actively spreading,” she told The City.

“People’s lives are at stake and he refuses to provide available empty hotel rooms to people experiencing homelessness.”