NEW YORK – New York City Mayor Eric Adams is making an aggressive push to try to remove homeless people from the city’s sprawling subway system, announcing a plan to start barring people from sleeping on trains or riding the same lines all night.
The new mayor, at one point likening homelessness to a “cancerous sore,” said Friday that the city next week would deploy more teams of police officers and mental health workers to the transit network and start enforcing rules more strictly.
“People tell me about their fear of using the system and we are going to ensure that fear is not New York’s reality," Adams said.
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, who joined Adams at a subway station Friday to make the announcement, said the city and state can’t recover from the devastation of the pandemic until people return to their jobs — and ride the subway to get there.
She said the state was working to get more psychiatric beds at hospitals available by increasing the amount of money hospitals receive for having the beds.
“We know it’s a big problem. But shame on us if this moment in time, if we don’t turn over every single stone, find every possible way to to deal with this,” Hochul said.
Adams, a former New York City Police captain and transit officer who once patrolled the subterranean trains, said the vast majority of unhoused people are not dangerous. But the pandemic has exacerbated the issue, with more people dealing with job loss and untreated medical and mental health issues, and some of those people are dangerous to themselves and the public.
Adams called it a complex problem, saying “You can’t put a band-aid on a cancerous sore," but, “You must remove the cancer and start the healing process.”
Shelly Nortz, the deputy executive director for policy at the Coalition for the Homeless, called the mayor's comment “sickening" and said “criminalizing homelessness” was not the answer.
“Repeating the failed outreach-based policing strategies of the past will not end the suffering of homeless people bedding down on the subway. It is sickening to hear Mayor Adams liken unsheltered homeless people to a cancer. They are human beings," Nortz said.
Adams' spokesperson, Fabien Levy, responded by saying the mayor “was abundantly clear today that his heart breaks when he sees fellow New Yorkers sleeping on trains.”
“We are not going to abandon those who are experiencing homelessness to lives of suffering and pain and we are not going to allow the betrayal of these individuals to continue any longer. We can help those in need, uphold the law, and restore public confidence in our transit system all at the same time,” Levy said.
Nortz said the coalition was pleased to hear, however, that part the plan would involve expanding the number of psychiatric beds at hospitals.
As subway ridership cratered during the pandemic, homeless people have become more visible, sometimes sleeping on platforms or several seats on a train, something the mayor has said contributes to a general feeling of “disorder” in the nations’ largest city.
The mayor, who has emphasized the appearance of crime and disorder as being just as important to tackle as the actual crime statistics, said it was unacceptable that the system allowed, in one case, a woman to live under a stairway inside a station for months.
“That is not dignity. That is disgusting,” he said. “And that’s not who we are as a city.”
In addition to the tens of thousands of people who sleep in the city’s shelter systems, there are uncounted thousands of people sleeping on the city’s streets and sometimes subway stations and trains.
Adams announced last month he was injecting more police officers into the system, not only having officers riding trains but having other neighborhood patrol officers spend more time in stations and on platforms.
The crackdown was spurred by a string of violent incidents in the transit network, including the death of a woman who was pushed to her death in front of a train in January and a fresh incident Thursday afternoon, when a man breakdancing on a train was wounded when he was stabbed twice by another man who then fled.
In the case of the fatal shoving of Michelle Alyssa Go, police said the suspect, Martial Simon, was homeless and had a history of “emotionally disturbed encounters.”
Adams encountered incidents himself on his first day as mayor, when he witnessed a fight and at least one person sleeping on a train as he made a point of commuting on the subway to City Hall.
“Who wants to start their day that way? Of that level of despair that’s right in front of them?” the mayor said Friday when reflecting on his first day.
Police statistics show major felonies in the subways have dropped over the last two years, but the numbers are difficult to compare with ridership numbers having dropped as well.
Police Commissioner Keechant Sewell said starting next week, the police department's officers will be joined by mental health workers in the subways. The teams will focus on high-traffic areas or areas where there have been increased reports of crime.
“Trained people will look to assist those in need. We will enforce transit rules when necessary, but this is about helping people,” she said.
This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Police Commissioner Keechant Sewell's last name.