Can de Blasio ever win on homelessness?

The homeless in NYC have sought refuge from the pandemic by riding the mostly empty subways.
The homeless in NYC have sought refuge from the pandemic by riding the mostly empty subways.
Marc A. Hermann/ MTA New York City Transit
The homeless in NYC have sought refuge from the pandemic by riding the mostly empty subways.

Can de Blasio ever win on homelessness?

The governor has put the mayor to work figuring out homelessness on the NYC subways.
April 29, 2020

A long time ago, there was some debate over who was in charge of the New York City subways, but no one doubts that it is now the responsibility of Gov. Andrew Cuomo. He faces the tricky problem of removing the increasing numbers of homeless people who have sought refuge from the coronavirus pandemic by riding the mostly empty trains throughout the day.

“The front page is a picture of a subway car, filled with homeless people and their belongings,” Cuomo said on Tuesday in response to one media account of deteriorating hygienic conditions. “That is disgusting what is happening on those subway cars and it’s disrespectful to the essential workers.” By the end of the day, the situation had set off a fresh clash with New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

If the city did not find a way to get homeless people off the subways, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority would hire more of its own police officers, interim New York City Transit President Sarah Feinberg said Tuesday. “I want the mayor to send the NYPD and his outreach workers into every single end of line station by the end of the week.”

The challenge puts de Blasio in a tough spot. He does not control public transit itself, yet he has to figure out what to do with the homeless people who sleep on the subways. At the same time, he has to improve conditions for tens of thousands of people who would normally be in city shelters that do fall under the mayor’s purview.

“Letting them endanger their own lives and endanger the lives of others is not helping anyone,” Cuomo said of the homeless on Wednesday. He added that the MTA will be cleaning all trains overnight every day. While the agency is in turn leaning on the city to figure out how to remove the homeless, it appears the mayor and the governor might be able to avoid a clash over the issue, at least for now.

“We’ll devote the police resources, we’ll devote the outreach workers, we’ll do whatever it takes, but we need the MTA to agree to this plan,” de Blasio said on Tuesday. The MTA has yet to agree to closing some stations between 12 a.m. and 5 a.m. as de Blasio has suggested, Gothamist reported.

More than 6,000 homeless people have already been moved into city hotels, de Blasio told reporters on Wednesday morning, and spots will be found for an additional 1,000 people per week moving forward. Making hotel rooms available might be a more attractive option than living in the subways, but the mayor did not specify how he would leverage the outreach teams and the police to get people sleeping on the trains to accept shelter and social services.

The city typically leans on persuasion when it comes to removing people from the subway system by force, which is not easy from a legal point of view. There have even been reports that the nonprofit provider of such services has “failed” to succeed despite millions in public funding before the pandemic. But those are the tools that de Blasio has during this time.

Cuomo said on Tuesday that he will offer any resources to the effort of solving the homelessness problem on the subways, but he is asking New York City to get the job done in the short term. Otherwise, the MTA will hire more cops. In the past, having more police on the subways has tended to be a detriment to the mayor. It seems like the mayor can’t win unless the homeless can be removed from the system in significant numbers within the next few days.

Zach Williams
is senior state politics reporter at City & State.