The MTA has once again found itself in the crosshairs of a debate over how it deals with homeless people sleeping or resting in the subway system. On Friday, someone the MTA described as a "junior" employee responded to a tweet asking why benches were removed from the 23rd Street F/M subway station. The employee, who used the initials JP, wrote to the concerned commuter that the benches were removed to “prevent the homeless from sleeping on them.”
The tweet was soon deleted, and the MTA has refused to say why the benches were removed.
In a statement, MTA spokesperson Abbey Collins wrote that the tweet was posted in error, adding: “The subway is not a substitute for a shelter and homeless New Yorkers deserve much better care. We have been working with the City on this important issue and have asked for more dedicated mental health and medical resources which are urgently needed to solve the homeless crisis that has been exacerbated by the pandemic.”
Yet, she refused to say how many benches were removed systemwide in the past year, or whether the benches were removed to prevent homeless people from using them, as the tweet said.
While the MTA blames the city for not doing more to address the ongoing housing crisis, in which both recently and chronically homeless New Yorkers have sought refuge in the subway system, it also has not hidden its own efforts to thwart people from spending the night or excess time in the system either. The removal of the benches at the 23rd Street station could be just the latest example.
Last February, the MTA removed the backs of subway benches. When Governor Cuomo initiated a costly, cosmetic upgrade of stations in the summer of 2016, it included the installation of “leaning bars” and dividers on benches, moves that were widely seen as forms of hostile architecture intended to keep the homeless from lying down.
Last May, Cuomo ordered the first-ever shutdown of overnight subway service. The MTA says the overnight closures are about disinfecting trains (which experts say is no longer a prime transmission route for COVID-19) and not removing the homeless, although that is what happens between the hours of 1 a.m. to 5 a.m.
“Governor Cuomo can’t solve the housing crisis by moving homeless people along and closing the subway to paying riders overnight,” Danny Pearlstine, Policy and Communications Director at the Riders Alliance, told Gothamist/WNYC. “[It] doesn’t solve the housing crisis, removing benches doesn’t solve it either.”
Joe Rappaport, the Executive Director at Brooklyn Center for Independence of the Disabled (BCID), noticed benches were removed from his local station at Borough Hall a little over a year ago, so he wrote a letter to the MTA.
“And their response was, ‘we’ve received complaints from people that there was a homeless person using the bench and hanging out there, and therefore we removed it,’” Rappaport told Gothamist/WNYC. “It was also a bench I often used, and saw other people, mostly older people, using.”
Rappaport is a plaintiff in three lawsuits against the MTA for failing to comply with the Americans With Disability Act and the New York City Human Rights Law over accessible stations.
“In the end what happens is that people who might need a bench to sit because they have a disability or they’re just tired at the end of the day, lose out,” Rappaport said.