Homeless on public transit lack better options

By Opinions Editor

A conversation with any Chicagoan will inevitably yield a horror story or two about riding the Chicago Transit Authority, ranging from tales of pushy solicitors to unexplained, lengthy delays. But in the winter, some passengers have a more olfactory anecdote: the ripe smell of feces in train cars.

The unwelcome stench is most common on the Red and Blue lines because homeless individuals are more likely to take shelter in the 24-hour train lines during the record-breaking cold, according to CTA spokeswoman Lambrini Lukidis. The CTA has addressed the issue by apologizing to riders and claimed it would be bringing on more patrollers to monitor the presence of homeless people on the train cars, partnering with social services to offer them options.

Seeing the occasional homeless person sleeping in a train car is commonplace for any habitual commuter, and the CTA is right to add more patrollers to keep riders comfortable. However, “encouraging” homeless people to seek shelter elsewhere is likely to devolve into simply tossing them off train cars and onto cold platforms, which only removes them from sight and does nothing to remedy the underlying problem. Instead of addressing the presence of homeless people on public transit, the city should address the cause: insufficient shelters.

Anyone who can afford the fare has the right to use public transit—that’s what makes it public. If someone has a long way to go, dozing off on a train or bus is acceptable so long as it does not obstruct another person or the vehicle’s operations, according to a 2006 CTA Ordinance. Occupying a space in a train or bus is also acceptable as long as a CTA or law official has not explicitly told the person to vacate. The only policy homeless people violate by sleeping on a CTA vehicle is if they choose to relieve themselves in a corner, which is explicitly forbidden in the organization’s indecent exposure standards.

However, many activities that are in violation of the CTA’s policies happen on a daily basis. Solicitors wander up and down the aisles asking passengers for money, individuals cross between cars illegally, litter and graffiti appear frequently and people play radios, eat and drink in trains and buses, all of which are strictly prohibited in the organization’s conduct guidelines. Monitoring every car is financially impossible, but if the CTA wants to increase patrolling, it has well-grounded reasons to do so. But doing it only because of the presence of homeless people on the trains is unfair to them and seemingly turns a blind eye to the rest of the illegal behavior that occurs on the public transit system.

Homelessness is a long-standing issue in Chicago that is difficult to measure and even more difficult to solve. A July 2013 Chicago Coalition for the Homeless analysis estimated that 116,042 Chicagoans were homeless during the 2012–2013 academic year, a 10 percent increase from the previous year. Chicago’s emergency, short-term and permanent shelters total 11,856, with the majority being permanent housing that includes a lengthy application process and specific qualifications, such as a categorized length of time without a home and a target income level, according to the city’s 2012 Plan to End Homelessness. Many sleep on the trains or buses when shelters close for the night and they cannot afford a hotel room, and though the number of people in need of a place to sleep increases during the winter, it is a year-round problem for both the homeless and for transit officials.

The homeless need a place to go when the weather is brutal, and 24-hour train cars are sometimes the only accessible option. But because public transit is a citywide institution, it is unreasonable for overnight passengers to defecate or urinate in a public train car. Instead of kicking them off the cars, CTA officials should have a stronger presence at train stations when a person appears to be homeless and call in to a social service that would be able to provide him or her a shelter.

Chicago is not the only city where the homeless take shelter on 24-hour buses and trains. Boston, New York City, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. have all been forced to draw a line between caring for the homeless and discouraging loiterers. Rather than patrolling and evicting people based on the supposition that other riders are bothered, Boston has developed a smartphone app called See Say—a play on the tagline “If you see something, say something”—that riders can use to anonymously report incidents on trains and buses. But even simple things such as installing a public bathroom in a station or allowing a person to sleep in an out-of-the-way corner for the especially frigid nights are acts of mercy that will not damage the integrity of the public transit system and do not overlook the needs of the less fortunate.

The usual protocol for spotting a homeless person on public transportation is to look away and pretend he or she is not there, but that does not solve the problem of homeless people having to take shelter on the 24-hour CTA trains and buses. It is a twisted sense of privacy that benefits neither the homeless nor the other riders. People shouldn’t have to literally smell a person before being able to acknowledge his or her existence.