New York City subway ridership has plummeted by 93% during the coronavirus pandemic, but homeless people still turn to mass transit for shelter — and it has raised alarming health and safety concerns for workers and riders.
City data shows roughly 2,000 people sleep on subway trains on a regular winter night; the number dips as the weather warms up.
But since last month, when the MTA was forced to cut subway service because of a shortage of healthy workers, homeless New Yorkers have been concentrated onto fewer trains — and have become far more noticeable.
The situation has Metropolitan Transportation Authority staffers feeling uneasy, and may be undermining the agency’s efforts to aggressively disinfect each subway car every 72 hours, workers said.
“The homeless situation is out of control like I’ve never seen before,” said Yann Hicks, a subway train operator who’s worked at the MTA since 2006. “They’re setting up shop because they know they can get away with this. The cops don’t want to touch these homeless people, and we don’t want to go into the same car as them because they’re not wearing masks.”
There’s more to worry about than coronavirus exposure, workers noted. There’s been a troubling trend of subway fires sparked inside train cars in recent weeks — and that’s on top of track fires, which are a fairly common occurrence.
From April 4 through April 17, homeless riders lit three separate fires inside subway trains, according to internal MTA incident reports obtained by the Daily News.
On April 4 around 4:45 a.m., a woman who appeared to be homeless incinerated some papers while on a Manhattan-bound No. 4 train near Borough Hall, according to one report.
In an April 8 incident, a homeless man used a bag full of cans to set off a small fire around 8:20 a.m. on an uptown No. 2 train near 96th St. in Manhattan.
Then on April 17, a homeless man started a small fire in a shopping cart on a Manhattan-bound No. 4 train near New Lots Ave. at 6:10 a.m., just before the morning rush.
None of those fires caused extensive damage to train cars, but Hicks said he and his colleagues fear another tragedy like the massive blaze set off on an uptown No. 2 train on March 27, which killed a train operator who first ushered passengers to safety before succumbing to the smoke.
MTA data shows the number of fires reported in the subway is up slightly, despite dismal ridership figures.
Transit officials have recorded 68 subway fires in the four weeks since March 23, up from 66 during the same period in 2019, when ridership was at normal levels.
MTA chief safety officer Pat Warren said the number of people using the subway as shelter during the coronavirus pandemic represents “a failure on the city’s part to get these folks to an acceptable, secure facility.”
Warren acknowledged the city faces a shortage of healthy cops and outreach workers who can help manage the homeless crisis underground, but said city officials need to take ownership of the problem.
Officials from Transport Workers Union Local 100 agreed.
“Transit workers are absolutely fed up with the city’s failure to deal with the mentally ill and homeless in the subway system,” said Local 100 president Tony Utano. “There are a lot of people living in the system who are not regularly washing their hands or practicing other anti-virus measures experts say are critically important to prevent infecting others.”
City Department of Social Services spokesman Isaac McGinn said outreach workers have made roughly 14,000 engagements with homeless New Yorkers since the pandemic hit the city, resulting in 12 transports for those who exhibited COVID-19 symptoms.
“As we did before this unprecedented crisis, our HOME-STAT outreach teams continue their 24/7/365 outreach, helping unsheltered New Yorkers experiencing homelessness come in off the streets and subways into transitional and permanent housing,” McGinn said.