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BY ZACH WILLIAMS | Beneath the heights of the World Trade Center, a growing subterranean homeless population continues to serve as a source of friction between the city and civil rights groups.
Following the latest clash between the two sides, homeless rights activists declared victory early Monday morning following a decision announced Friday by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to reschedule a planned cleaning and homeless outreach effort on the E train in Lower Manhattan. The victory however may ultimately be short-lived for those who regularly bed down on the E train through cold winter nights.
The overnight homeless population on the line has risen in recent weeks along with rider complaints regarding the cleanliness of the trains at its two terminals: World Trade Center and Jamaica, Queens. Agency officials though opted not to follow through with a plan to both address sanitary issues on the train and connect sleeping homeless with local “hospitals, transportation and housing” services starting at 3 a.m. on Feb. 24, according to spokesperson Kevin Ortiz.
“It’s a postponement, not a cancellation,” he said while declining to state why the agency decided on such action. He did not say when the M.T.A. would next conduct such an outreach.
He added that allegations from activists and local media last week “erroneously” characterized a two-decade old social program known as M.T.A. Connections. During such actions, passengers are asked to voluntarily leave subway cars, he said.
“There is nothing new about what we’re doing here,” said Ortiz.
Despite the decision, about 20 activists from at least two organizations congregated at the World Trade Center E Station platform early Monday morning to verify the postponement. Darlene Bryant, a member of The Housing Committee at Picture the Homeless, said Monday morning that her experience as a homeless person and activist makes her skeptical of assurances from police and subway officials that they would leave the dozens of people who sleep on the E train alone.
“Have you [ever] changed your mind? Say ‘I’m not going to go to the store now’ … ‘Oh shoot I’m going to go to the store,’” she said. “They can do it too.”
A contingent from the Cop Watch Patrol Unit was also present to monitor police activity that morning, according to co-founder Jose LaSalle. He added that homeless people are considered an important demographic in his organization’s efforts to support the civil rights of disadvantaged communities.
“Everybody in this society is just a step away from being homeless,” he said.
The E and C are the only subway lines which are completely underground, an advantage for homeless people looking to avoid bursts of winter cold coming in from open carriage doors.
One of the homeless at the W.T.C., a former bartender who worked the last seven years in the West Village area, said early Tuesday morning that he lost his job and apartment two months ago after the restaurant he worked at closed.. A 1995 Land Rover rag-top convertible he owned containing most of his worldly possessions was towed away several weeks later to parts unknown, said the 50 year-old man who wished to be identified only by his first name, Marty.
After one night in a homeless shelter, he decided that the subway line from Downtown to his native Queens was the best accommodation available to him under the circumstances. While far from ideal, conditions on the train allow him to sleep comfortably for up to 12 hours as well as come and go at any hour.
“I don’t know the other lines. I mean I have taken them short distances in my life but this goes back and forth, same neighborhoods,” Marty said.
He added that he questioned how the delayed action would have played out as planned Monday morning for the police and M.T.A.
“They leave me alone, but these other poor guys, how are they going to sweep them out,” he said. “There are 10 or 15 people in each car every night.”
The E line garnered a rating of seventh out of 19 subway lines in the 2013 report from the Straphangers Campaign with a reported 94 percent of cars with “light or no interior dirtiness.” While urine is a common scent at the World Trade Center station, a handful of early morning passengers said they are not bothered by the large presence of homeless there.
The passengers described the lack of alternative housing and the necessity of escaping the cold weather as important considerations in letting the homeless sleep there each night.
“If the city views this as a problem, which I don’t necessarily do, then they should think about affordable housing as opposed to policing people which is just creating more of a problem,” said Nick Malinowski, a Brooklyn resident who rode the E line