“We can create a better environment for both the homeless and riders by setting up drop-in centers within some of the larger subway stations.”

National Guard soldiers perform a back check on the subway

U.S. Army National Guard Photo by 1st Lt. Stephanie Sylvain

New York Army National Guard soldiers alongside NYPD and the state police conducting bag checks at a subway entrance on March 8, 2024.

The recent invasion of the subway system by hundreds of uniformed and armed National Guard troops was a useless and maybe counterproductive measure to convince riders that the system is now safe. I don’t understand how the governor would think that riders walking past soldiers would make them feel safer. If anything, it sends the message that the subways are more dangerous than ever. I understand the governor’s desire to project safety and strength, but this is not the way to do it.

Instead of soldiers, I am suggesting that we add services to the subway system. With thousands of homeless people residing in the system and with outreach teams having a very limited success rate in finding them shelter, it is time we accept the fact that most of the homeless will not be leaving the subways any time soon. I believe that we can create a better environment for both the homeless and riders by setting up drop-in centers within some of the larger subway stations.

Drop-in centers are equipped with chairs and provide clients with food, water, medical care, clothing and a place to clean up and use a toilet. An oasis for the street homeless, drop-in centers could make it easier for outreach workers to convince them to first leave the trains and platforms and eventually accept placement in a shelter or supportive housing.

It would be easy and not very expensive to set up drop-in centers on a pilot basis in stations like Grand Central, Times Square, Penn Station, and Atlantic Avenue, where several unoccupied spaces could easily be converted with the addition of chairs, tables and portable toilets.

Getting the homeless off trains and platforms this way would be better for them, and make riders feel more comfortable—even though the homeless are a very small percentage of the perpetrators of subway crimes. The majority of those criminals are repeat offenders, known to the justice system, who feel that they can do whatever they want since the new system of bail reform has given them a Get Out of Jail Free Card. We hear about people who are arrested for subway crimes who are released immediately even though they have dozens of prior convictions and have skipped out on required court appearances.

ANOTHER PERSPECTIVE: Opinion—In the Current Debate on New York’s Bail Laws, Data and Justice Lose

The governor should move, as quickly as she did on deploying the National Guard, to insist that the legislature make significant changes to bail reform. She has a budget coming up soon and she should pressure the legislature, especially our progressive speaker and majority leader, to end this destructive experiment of letting criminals off and hoping that somehow they will change their ways.

After the soldiers are removed from the system, which hopefully will be soon, the NYPD should develop a system to use hand held metal detectors’ to remove weapons from the subways. Looking in backpacks is almost useless, as a weapon such as a knife could be easily concealed within a person’s clothing. The police should also continue their efforts to confront fare beaters, many of whom have been shown to have outstanding warrants pending against them.

As a former deputy commissioner with the city’s Department of Homeless Services, former director of the NYS Crime Victims Board and as a native New Yorker, I believe that removing soldiers and putting in services would help to make the subways safer for everyone.

Mascali is a former deputy commissioner with the city’s Department of Homeless Services and  a former vice president for supportive housing with Win.