By Jose Martinez, originally published in THE CITY
More than 90% of the estimated 2,000 homeless New Yorkers who have been sleeping on trains and in stations during the pandemic ended up on streets and buses after the first overnight subway shutdown.
Just 139 people migrated to city shelters, NYPD officials said, while the rest rode out the 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. closure elsewhere, waiting for the system to reopen after a disinfecting and cleaning.
“Thousands of hotel rooms sit empty — places that could be used to help homeless New Yorkers get back on their feet and maintain safe social distancing,” said Giselle Routhier, policy director at the Coalition for the Homeless. “The city and state are failing our homeless neighbors at a time when their very lives are at risk and when the solution is so easy and obvious.”
The MTA increased the number of buses during the overnight hours, adding 344 vehicles to the 235 usually on the road at that time. Ridership increased by 76%, the MTA said, with approximately 14,500 people traveling on buses at no cost between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m.
But several drivers told THE CITY the bulk of their passengers were people riding from one end of the route to the other.
“I guess they thought it was like being on the train and they would stay on the bus all day,” said Domingo Colon, 63, an MTA bus operator for 21 years.
Colon said 10 apparently homeless people boarded his B82 bus in Coney Island and stayed on for the entire 10-mile route to Spring Creek.
“They had no masks on,” he said. “I got kids, I’m taking a chance.”
“We can’t have the buses becoming homeless shelters,” said JP Patafio, a vice president for Transport Workers Union Local 100. “The fear is there among my members, and rightfully so. They need to open up the hotels.”
‘We’ll Stay on This’
As THE CITY reported this week, spitting attacks against MTA bus drivers increased 40% in the first three months of the year — 31 incidents, up from 22 a year earlier.
And since Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s mid-April executive order that all riders wear masks on public transportation, there have been at least eight incidents of harassment or verbal abuse against bus operators.
MTA officials said the first night of beefed-up bus service resulted in “very few” reports from operators about “poor experiences.”
“But that doesn’t mean that the few reports that we got aren’t valid, so we’ll stay on this,” said Sarah Feinberg, interim president of New York City Transit.
While the NYPD has deployed more than 1,000 officers to enforce the subway shutdown, a department spokesperson and MTA officials declined to say how many cops are overseeing the shift of subway riders onto buses.
State Sen. Jessica Ramos (D-Queens) said the large number of homeless people on streets and buses is yet another sign that many fear going to shelters, especially amid the spread of COVID-19.
“Neither the train nor the bus is a home,” Ramos told THE CITY. “Human beings need homes.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Social Services said workers will keep pushing to connect those living in the subway system with help.
“We know that it can take hundreds of engagements for someone to accept services and that someone who’s not ready to do so today may be ready to make that transition tomorrow,” said the spokesperson, Isaac McGinn.
A bus driver on the B82 route, who asked not to be identified by name, said he was approached by a female passenger who pleaded she wanted to “just ride with you.”
Most of those on his multiple roundtrips between Coney Island and Spring Creek, he said, were apparently homeless people likely waiting for the subway to reopen.
“I’m not surprised at all that they ended up on the buses,” said the driver. “It’s sad, but they don’t have anywhere else to go.”