‘We need to abandon once and for all the idea that homelessness is a choice, and that people are not in shelters because they don’t know better. The problem is they do and that’s why they are choosing to sleep on subways and sidewalks.’


Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

City outreach workers at the 2nd Avenue subway station in 2016.

New York City has a homelessness problem, but it’s not what you think. Yes, there have been thousands of homeless folks in New York City shelters and in the streets and subways for decades. Yes, the budget for the Department of Homeless Services has risen exponentially over the years. Yes, COVID-19 slamming into the city nearly one year ago has only exacerbated the problem, with the closing of congregate shelters, libraries, subways and coffee shops (not to mention putting thousands of people out of work and on the edge of eviction).

Yet for all of these very real issues, the bigger problem lurking just beneath the surface is that as a society, we still haven’t figured out that people don’t choose to sleep outside; they choose not to sleep in shelters. The bigger problem is a fundamental misunderstanding about what causes homelessness and how the people who experience it deserve every opportunity that we can offer to help them access housing, not force them into shelters.

Last week, a keen observer noticed that the benches that previously dotted the landscape of a subway platform in NYC had mysteriously vanished. This individual took to Twitter to ask why and tagged the official account for subway news and updates: @NYCTSubway. In a surprising moment of honesty someone tasked with communicating on their behalf replied, “Benches were removed from stations to prevent the homeless from sleeping on them.” This promptly created a firestorm in the Twitterverse, and the response was quickly deleted. MTA officials later stated that the benches at that station have been returned, claiming they were removed so they could be “deep cleaned.”

The mindset that leads the MTA to remove benches so that homeless folks won’t have warm, dry places to rest is not new. But it is backwards. This mindset is predicated on the systemic lie that homelessness exists because people choose to reject services. The belief is that if society makes homelessness as intolerable as possible, these individuals will see the error of their ways and ultimately accept the options the government provides. The people who perpetuate this belief system are convinced this approach is “humane” because they seem to believe the vast majority of those who sleep on these benches are incapable of making rational decisions. These leaders would call removing the benches “tough love.”

But it’s impossible to assume with any consistency that people sleeping in subway stations are both incapable of making rational decisions and capable of being persuaded to come inside because of the discomfort forced upon them through “hostile architecture” and criminalization. Punishing people in poverty so that they will be forced to “choose” not to be impoverished is insane. Instead of trying to increase the misery of miserable people, we should try offering solutions that decrease misery, build trust, and improve people’s lives. 

Here are several ideas: 

  1. Put the benches back. Though the MTA said it has returned the benches at the 23rd Street Station that sparked the initial Twitter debate, it should do the same at any other subway stations where benches may have been removed. This small gesture would demonstrate a desire on the part of city leadership to empathize with those in the margins of society who are often treated like a problem to be solved instead of a citizen to be helped.
  2. Open the subways at night. When COVID-19 slammed into New York City, the case was made that the subways needed to be closed to be cleaned. It seems logical, except for the fact that the timing was remarkably close to a blitz of news stories around complaints about homeless riders making life difficult for essential workers. The MTA repeatedly and rightfully claims they are not equipped to function as an alternative to the shelter system. But what if there was a coordinated strategy to both clean and operate specific trains during the winter months that allowed those experiencing homelessness to receive emergency supplies and connect with outreach teams that could get them into stabilization beds? 
  1.  Increase the number of stabilization beds for those in the street. COVID-19 is still a problem. While the mayor of New York City did move thousands of homeless individuals from the shelter system into hotel rooms, albeit slowly, the administration did not go nearly far enough (especially given the recent news about FEMA reimbursing 100 percent of the costs that cities incurred placing vulnerable populations into hotel rooms). There is still time. One of the most successful efforts that DHS has made since the start of the pandemic was increasing the number of stabilization beds available for homeless individuals. While those in the streets are understandably reluctant to accept an invitation to a congregate shelter, the offer of a private hotel room with a private bathroom is a game changer.
  2.  Give the city contracted outreach teams the flexibility to offer winter clothing, food, and bottled water to those they engage in the street. While access to affordable housing continues to lag behind the number of people who actually need it, offering compassionate relief through tangible acts of service does nothing but help establish relationships and build trust.

We need to abandon once and for all the idea that homelessness is a choice, and that people are not in shelters because they don’t know better. The problem is they do and that’s why they are choosing to sleep on subways and sidewalks. Our problem is that as a society we still seem to believe that homeless folks are not really humans who are worthy of our consideration and respect. Because as long as we treat homelessness as a symptom of poor judgment, we will never actually address the real problem or appreciate the trauma that our homeless neighbors experience just to survive. 

Josiah Haken is an activist and practitioner who helps organizations, faith communities, and individuals cultivate spaces where those who experience homelessness are cared for with dignity and intentionality. He is the vice president of outreach operations at NYC Relief and has been helping people get off the street for over 10 years.