They say you can stay on the subway all night.” So commented a middle-aged homeless man to me on a particularly cold evening at a subway station in the Manhattan neighborhood of East Harlem. Warmly bundled up myself, I was sitting on a bench facing the tracks and noticed him because he was standing in front of me with the help of two wooden canes that were precariously supporting him. He was dressed only in thin cotton pants and a lightweight jacket.
Each time a train roared into the station, passengers scrambled out, leaving him too little time to take the few shaky steps he needed to get on. Finally, a patient though harried conductor leaned from his compartment as the cars screeched to a halt and, quickly sizing up the situation, yelled “Put him on! Put him on!” A woman on the waiting train offered the man her seat as he at last was able to totter into the car, and the doors slid closed. I never saw him again.
Scenes like these are common during New York City winters, and this one was especially harsh for homeless people. The subways—both the cars themselves, which mercifully run all night, and the stations, which are at least underground and not open to the weather—offer a rudimentary form of shelter.
With this past winter’s bitter cold, few people were chased from the subways, because the city is fearful of the adverse publicity that comes when someone dies of hypothermia on the streets. Indeed, the police have been sending out vans for those they judge to be at risk, offering a ride to one of the public shelters. But the policemen are in uniform and they use the standard, clearly marked N.Y.P.D. vans—the same kind used when making arrests. So not surprisingly, one man thus approached cried out: “But I haven’t done anything!”
Steve Robinson, the chef at America House, who had seen this particular incident reported on television and who rides the subway to work himself, shook his head the next day: “No wonder the guy didn’t want to get in! He thought they were taking him to jail. Couldn’t they at least have used a different kind of van?” He went on to comment on the larger implications of the current surge in New York City’s homeless population: “You would think that in a rich country like this one, homeless people could get more help than that.” But they don’t.
Most of the homeless people I see on the subway are men, but occasionally I see women too. Early one morning on the F train, I was sitting near a young African-American woman, her shoes half off and her head leaning against the window. She was sleeping so deeply that I knew it could not be the brief nap of a worker on her way to a job. Like the man on the platform in East Harlem, she had probably been on that same subway car all night. Women are more vulnerable than men in homeless situations, and a lighted subway car offers a modicum of safety through the darkest and most dangerous hours.
This particular woman attracted no one’s notice. But a mentally disturbed woman who has lived on and off for long periods in a station near America House confronted me one evening as I waited for the train home. I was carrying a shopping bag of wool sweaters—a donation from the America House Jesuits for the clothing room of the Catholic Worker near my parish. Thin to the point of emaciation, but strong, she snatched the bag from my hand. I let it go and boarded the next train. The sweaters were for the homeless, after all, and that was clearly her condition.
During the especially cold spell that followed, she disappeared—swept up, perhaps, into one of the police vans. I hope the sweaters proved useful. But I suspect that with warmer weather, she will reappear, as vulnerable as ever, with little chance for a more stable life under our present system of caring for those in greatest need, physically and mentally. Steve is right: how can such situations be tolerated in a society as rich as ours?