To get to City Hall on his first day in office, Mayor Eric Adams took the subway. One of his riding companions was a young man wrapped in a bright-yellow quilt, sleeping across multiple seats. Less than a week later, Adams promised a change in strategy toward both this subway vagrancy and violent crime underground.
But he’ll have to confront the question Bill de Blasio never dealt with: What happens when the subway’s disturbed denizens don’t want the help the city has on offer?
On Thursday, Adams stood with Gov. Kathy Hochul at a Lower Manhattan station, vowing to “restore public trust in our transportation system.”
We need it. The pledge came just after a random Queens subway stabbing that left a 36-year-old man paralyzed.
The attack portended a third year of higher violent crime on the subways: Thirteen people were murdered underground during 2020 and 2021, compared with an average of one to two a year pre-pandemic.
Last year (through November), total violent felonies on transit were up 10 percent compared with 2019, even though ridership rarely reached half of normal.
Adams, a former transit cop, promised an “omnipresence” of police. “Actual crime and the perception of crime and a perception of disorder leads to the crisis we are facing,” he said.
With new state money, the city will also take a different approach to the thousands of homeless men who aren’t preying on people but whose presence in the subway deters people from commuting.
These homeless people are often victims of crime themselves: Soccer player Akeem Loney was sleeping overnight on a Penn Station train when he lost his life in November to a random attacker. A year ago, a homeless man and woman were knifed to death on the A train.
Now, the governor promises “SOS teams,” for “Safe Options Support.” Social workers and medics will approach vagrants on the subway, trying to learn about their circumstances and get them into shelter or care.
“This new plan . . . frees up our police officers to focus on crime,” not “sweeping men and women who are homeless off our system,” said Adams.
It’s worth trying this more assertive approach — but it’s also worth remembering that New York has employed this tactic before.
Even before COVID, $35 million and four years of effort by outreach workers “found no discernible decrease in the number of homeless sheltering on MTA properties,” the state comptroller reported in 2019.
Most chronic street homeless people have already had contact with civilian outreach staff but haven’t taken aid. Some people find shelters dangerous; others chafe under no-drug rules and curfews. Some people can’t make a rational decision.
The big question, for years, has been: What happens when someone setting up camp in a subway train doesn’t want help?
Adams said only that police officers won’t “engage, unless there is some criminal activity taking place.” Will the people like the man sleeping next to Adams New Year’s Day be left to their own devices if they tell outreach workers to go away?
Adams was also quiet on another subway scourge: farebeating. Last week, an apparently drunk 28-year-old man in Queens was so sure that no cops were around to stop him that he tried multiple times over several minutes to jump over a turnstile, fatally breaking his neck.
It may seem like a freak accident, but it’s another sign of disorder. Farebeaters are disproportionately dangerous. In mid-December, an alleged Manhattan farebeater assaulted a transit worker.
A week later, a would-be farebeater in Manhattan stabbed a woman when she refused to open the exit gate for him. The victim’s comment? “I don’t know why there were no cops.”
She’s right: Last year, farebeating arrests were down by two-thirds compared with 2019; civil summonses were down 16 percent.
Police shouldn’t let Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s refusal to prosecute fare-beaters — a continuation of his predecessor’s policy — deter them from writing civil summonses. These interactions keep guns and knives, and the criminals who carry them, off the subways before they commit violence.
Adams must ignore critics who say farebeating stops criminalize poverty. Most poor people pay their fares — and expect to be safe when they ride. As the mayor said Thursday of “a feeling that the system was out of control” when he patrolled the trains, “we are not going back there.”
This piece originally appeared at the New York Post
Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images