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MTA works hard to get homeless out of subway system

TimesLedger Newspapers

The Senior Citizens Advisory Council of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority is a group of volunteers with four members from each borough who at monthly meetings listen and suggest things to MTA officials.

At a recent meeting, we had as one speaker Cynthia Wilson, the program manager of the MTA Homeless Outreach Operations Support group. This unit has 24 members whose job is to try to get the homeless out of the subway and get them services and places to live.

You may remember several decades ago when the governor removed many non-violent, mentally ill people from the hospitals around the state and put them into group facilities under medication. The problem has resulted in mentally ill people who do not want to take their medication for various reasons and do not want to stay in group homes or in homeless shelters. The law says they can stay homeless in the subway unless they are breaking a law. If they are violent, the law can incarcerate them and make them take their medication.

Wilson explained that her group breaks down into teams with police support when necessary. They try to reach out to the homeless they find on the subway, talk to them and gain their confidence. They target 45 stations where the homeless congregate. The homeless like the E line because it is safe and they can get a few hours of sleep as they ride the train. Grand Central Terminal is also a safe place to stay.

Sleeping on the subway is not illegal, but if a person is sprawled across several seats, has bags on several seats or is blocking aisles, panhandling, holding doors open or creating a disturbance, they then can be arrested. The unit likes to work with the homeless at stations at the end of a line because some are disturbed and a moving train can be dangerous.

Hospitals can only keep the homeless and mentally ill if they sign themselves into the hospital unless they are violent. Some are drug addicts. The unit works with other MTA employees to identify where the homeless are because some have found places to stay underground.

Wilson believes city shelters are now better than they were years ago, when there was crime. There are apartments available if the homeless agree to go to one and try to solve their problems and take medication. Sometimes they succeed and sometimes the people drift back into the subway. The law is the law and the MTA is trying to make a ride on the subway more pleasant.

Another topic discussed at the last SCAC meeting was people riding buses and not paying their fares. One cannot fault a bus driver for not insisting that people pay their fares because the driver is supposed to drive and not be a policeman. Some riders are mentally ill, some cannot afford the fare and some do not want to pay. Bus drivers do get attacked, a few were stabbed a couple of years ago and one young driver was killed over a paper transfer.

Some riders get annoyed with people in wheelchairs or with walkers and do not bother to pay a fare. On Access-A-Ride vans or cars, people have to pay. They should pay on buses. The city is now putting plastic panels around bus drivers to protect them and transit police teams are more active to stop fare beaters on buses.

GOOD AND BAD NEWS OF THE WEEK: It is important that the public know what is happening, but during events like the Boston Marathon too much detailed information could let criminals know too much about what authorities know.

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