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Fears overnight closure of New York subway will push homeless 'into the shadows'

by Ellen Wulfhorst | @EJWulfhorst | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 4 May 2020 18:24 GMT

Some 2,000 people sleep on New York City subways, which will be closed overnight to disinfect during coronavirus pandemic'

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By Ellen Wulfhorst

NEW YORK, May 4 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Plans to close New York City's subways at night to disinfect trains during the coronavirus pandemic risk pushing hundreds of homeless people "further into the shadows", housing experts warned, calling for safe alternatives to house them.

The overnight closing of the transit system, which starts on Wednesday, will allow for daily cleaning of the trains for the essential workers using them while most city residents are staying at home, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said.

Police and outreach workers will handle the homeless people who have been sleeping on the subway - which has run around the clock for more than a century - Cuomo said at a weekend briefing, offering to get them services and shelter.

But most city-run shelters or other shared housing options fail to protect the homeless from the deadly respiratory virus, housing activists said, with little space to self-isolate and often unsanitary conditions.

"Increasing the number of outreach professionals and police officers is not going to address the problem if we don't give people somewhere safe to go," said Jacquelyn Simone, a policy analyst at the Coalition for the Homeless, an advocacy group.

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"If none of those people are offering them that very basic resource, that person is going to remain on the street in all likelhood ... they might actually get pushed further into the shadows," she said.

New York City has been the nation's epicenter in the pandemic, with more than 170,000 coronavirus cases and more than 13,000 deaths, according to its Health Department.

Before the pandemic, some 2,000 people slept on the subways each night, according to the Coalition, with the current figure likely to be higher as job losses force rising numbers to sleep rough.

Authorities said that over the weekend two homeless men were found dead on subway trains. One tested negative for the coronavirus and the other's test was pending, according to local media.

"You do not help the homeless by letting them sleep on a subway car in the middle of a global pandemic," Governor Cuomo said.

"I think it's actually an opportunity to get them off the trains and actually connect them to the services they've needed."


Health experts say homeless people are more likely to contract illnesses such as the coronavirus, in part because of weakened immune systems due to additional stress, and lack of nutrition and sleep.

More than 60 coronavirus victims have died in New York City homeless shelters, according to officials.

Shelters have been staggering mealtimes and ended group activities, Simone said, but the layout of shared housing does not lend itself to homeless people's need to self-isolate and practice social distancing like everyone else.

"Offering someone to return to a place with shared dorms, shared bathrooms and shared eating facilities is not actually meeting people's needs," she said.

The city has more than 100,000 vacant hotel rooms, by some estimates, that could be put to use instead, she said.


Since the coronavirus outbreak, Lisa Lombardi, who handles outreach at Urban Pathways, an organization that provides services and housing assistance to homeless people, said she has seen new faces among the homeless population.

"There just seems to be just more new folks just walking the streets," she said. "People are very lost and not sure what to do with themselves right now."

Governor Cuomo, who served as U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President Bill Clinton, said the difficulty often lies in connecting with homeless people, many of whom struggle with mental illness.

"It's not as simple as saying, 'Come with me. I want to help you,'" he said at the weekend briefing.

People on the streets often treasure their independence, said R.J., who was homeless for several years and now lives in Urban Pathways housing. He did not want his full name used.

"You have to keep on trying to help them," he said.

(Reporting by Ellen Wulfhorst, Editing by Zoe Tabary. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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