New York City is meant to be a place for people to achieve their dreams and make it big. However, making it big is a tall order when making it at all is extremely difficult. Many New Yorkers are just a few missed bills or an accident away from becoming unhoused. Much of the NYC population is already unhoused, though no one is quite sure how many. In 2020 DeBlasio claims that there are anywhere between 3,500 to 4,000 people living on the streets at any given time. With the shelter system in the city being rigorous and chaotic, and few public places that will allow the remaining homeless population to sleep there, many people have turned to the New York subway system to shelter them from the elements, especially during the winter.
Rumors of people living in the subway are ever present in New York. However, you don’t have to live here for very long to know that it’s true. Unhoused people set up camp in Subway stations and trains, but those are only the people we see. There are many abandoned parts of the subway system where unhoused people have lived for decades, even forming tight knit communities to protect one another. These people are often demonized, abused, and described less than humanly. The second hyperlink in this paragraph calls them “mole people.” But they aren’t mole people. They are human beings. And they should be treated as such, but rarely are.
So how did we get here? New York has had a serious housing problem since the Great Depression. However, in the modern day, a lack of affordable housing and lack of job sustainability play a large part in keeping people unhoused in New York. The problems are so widespread that NYC accounts for 13% of the nation’s homeless population. These issues were highlighted, and largely made worse, during the pandemic. City officials are trying to figure out how to tackle these issues. However, for thousands of New Yorkers, it’s already too late.
Interestingly, there is a New York City mandate that not many other cities have: The city is required provide emergency shelter to those with no place to stay. This has helped NYC build one of the most sprawling homeless shelter systems in the country. So why don’t people just go there? Because, as this New York Times article states, shelters are “often overcrowded and sometimes violent.” This has led many of those who are homeless to seek shelter in public places like 24 hour restaurants, bus stations, and yes, the subway.
Residents often look the other way when they see unhoused people on the subway. That’s just part of living in New York. Sometimes an outreach worker will approach someone and tempt them to try the shelter system. However, the response to the homeless seeking shelter on the subway is usually a bit rougher, with police removing people from trains and stations. This practice really ramped up during the pandemic when the MTA was shut down overnight for cleaning. However, the trains are largely open again, and unhoused communities went back to sleeping there.
For the unhoused, the subway is usually a last resort. Again, most of NYC’s unhoused people are in the shelter system. But for those that can’t do that, the subway is usually the only public system they won’t be forced out of unless a rule is broken. The evenings on these trains are different for everyone. Some people prefer longer rides, like the A or the C train, while some people prefer to sleep on trains that experience less foot traffic. Many are afraid to sleep lying down in stations and trains as people have been fined or arrested by the NYPD for this. Instead, some people sleep upright, which can cause significant health issues. The unhoused also have to be wary of thieves, especially when many carry their belongings around with them.
There is some speculation that unhoused communities have set up communal living spaces in the abandoned parts of the tunnels. This is not only possible, but has happened before. However, not much has been heard of them since. The NYPD and city leadership took measures to dismantle many of these communities to improve train lines. That said, it makes sense that some of these communities survived given how much of the subway has been abandoned over the years.
There’s a stigma to being unhoused that can’t be escaped. Many people are under the impression that the unhoused want to live on the streets. However, “The big takeaway here is that people do want to come inside, they just need the right offer,” says Josh Dean, executive director of human.nyc in an interview with the New York Times. The offer the subway provides is a lack of curfew, guaranteed space, less crowding, and less violence. We cannot blame the unhoused for wanting stability in their lives, especially when they’re working so hard to get said lives back on track. Even with the city opening more beds and safe havens, facilities are finding themselves understaffed and not trusted.
New York City is a place where dreams come true, but it’s also a place where people can lose everything through no fault of their own. The homelessness outreach in the city has gotten better, especially during the pandemic with the expansion of the shelter and safe haven system. However, so much more needs to be done. The unhoused in the city want a safe, warm place to sleep at night. Many people don’t feel the current shelter system provides that for them. For many, the subway is the safest, and most flexible, option they have. It isn’t perfect, but it’s all they got. If the city really wants the unhoused out of the subway, they need to set up safer shelter alternatives, career opportunities, and affordable housing programs. The only way to solve homelessness is to get people into houses. Otherwise, people will always seek shelter in the subway.
Russell is a writer and comic based in New York City. His plays have been featured at Penn State’s Cultural Conversation’s Festival, The NYC Thespis Festival, and Imaginarium’s Inaugural Theater Festival. Follow him on TikTok and Instagram @pooleparty528