March 5, 2019 By Laura Hanrahan
Council Member Robert Holden is calling on the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to clean up the subway cars on the M train line after receiving a substantial number of complaints from constituents of foul odors, homeless individuals sleeping across benches and being aggressive with other riders, and even one instance of human feces found in between cars.
Holden told the Ridgewood Post that the M line, like other lines across the system, has seen its fair share of issues over the years, with a particular focus on problems towards the end of the line at Metropolitan Avenue.
In the past year, however, riders in the area have told him that the state of the subway cars has gotten much worse, with the council member also calling on the MTA and multiple city agencies to ramp up enforcement and outreach.
“I used to hear complaints when I was on the Community Board and also when I was the Civic President, but nothing like this,” Holden said. “Not only are the M trains, especially in the early mornings, filled with sleeping homeless men, but there’s a number of incidents that we’re hearing where they also have some serious mental illness problems.”
Riders have allegedly described cases of homeless individuals threatening to stab somebody in the eye “saying they look like CIA” while on the train, Holden said, adding that women and seniors often appear to be targeted.
One rider submitted photos of feces found in between two M train cars to Holden last month, which prompted the council member to publicly speak out on the issue on his Facebook page.
“My office has fielded many complaints of individuals exposing themselves, urinating and even defecating on the train, and this week I received these photos as evidence,” Holden wrote on Feb. 20.
Dominik Zakrzewski, a lifelong resident of the Maspeth and Middle Village area, takes the M train daily as part of his commute to work. He says he has observed first-hand the safety and cleanliness issues that Holden is trying to address, and has also reported incidences relating to unruly homeless individuals on the M train to the council member’s office.
“Most of the time I see people on the train who appear to be homeless or on drugs or drunk in the morning,” Zakrzewski said. “Usually by 8:00 a.m. the cars are clear but I did take the train at 6:30 a.m., 7:00 a.m. in the past, and that is when at least three cars had people sleeping on the benches, carts and garbage around them.”
Zakrzewski, who likes to read a book while riding the line, says he sometimes has to walk past several cars before being able to find a suitable place to sit, despite boarding the train at the beginning of the line.
“There needs to be outreach from local law enforcement and religious institutions,” Zakrzewski said. “I don’t want any homeless people freezing to death, but at the same time commuters who need the train to get to work should be respected, too.”
In addition to calling on the MTA to implement better cleaning methods at the end of the M line at Metropolitan, Holden says has started to speak with the NYPD Transit District 33, the Human Resources Administration, the MTA, and transitional housing non-profit Breaking Ground to see what can be done about helping the homeless individuals on the subway.
He is also asking the city agencies to form a taskforce to deal with the ongoing problems, which comes at a time when more police officers have been sent into the subway system to address the growing number of homeless people sleeping on trains during the winter months.
“We agree with the Council Member that the subway must be clean and comfortable, and we take reports of unsanitary conditions in trains and on our property very seriously,” said Shams Tarek, an MTA spokesperson. “We are in contact with the Council Member’s office to address these issues, and are working with NYPD to increase enforcement.”
The MTA, at the request of Andy Byford, the new New York City Transit president, has also been working to address the problem of unruly riders. Byford has asked group station managers to remove homeless people only if they are causing problems for other riders.
“I think there is a fundamental difference between someone coming in to keep warm, I get it, and sitting on a seat, maybe dozing off, I don’t have a problem with that. But lying across a seat or behaving in an antisocial manner or making a mess is not acceptable. That crosses the line,” Byford said in October, according to NY1. “So increasingly, that’s the kind of thing I want our GSMs, in conjunction with our chief’s officers, to bear down on. Warming up is one thing, but being offensive, obnoxious and antisocial is another thing, and that we’re not prepared to tolerate.”
The Department of Homeless Services was unable to provide comment on the M line incidents in particular. A spokesperson, however, said the agency remains “focused on helpful engagement, not harsh ejection.”
“Homelessness is not a crime and homeless New Yorkers who are not violating subway rules cannot be ejected from the system just because they are facing hard times,” a DHS spokesperson said.
“To that end, this administration has dedicated millions of dollars to transit system outreach efforts, including working hand in hand with the NYPD to engage New Yorkers in need 24/7/365 on subway trains, platforms, terminals, and end-of-line stations,” the spokesperson added.
The increase in M train complaints come after months of debate and community concerns about the possibility of a large-scale homeless shelter heading to the Middle Village area.
Holden has expressed hiss preference for smaller, faith-based shelters to serve the homeless in his district instead–a goal he is still working toward.
“I’m reaching out to anybody I can to try to make it work,” Holden said. “The administration needs to try to come up with better solutions than 200-men homeless shelters in the middle of a one-and two-family residential area. That never works.”
Holden says his office is awaiting a demographic breakdown of the homeless population in the area from DHS, which they requested several months ago in relation to the possible Cooper Avenue shelter.
He plans to next meet with Human Resources Administration/Department of Social Services Commissioner Steven Banks to discuss the implementation of more faith-based shelters in the area.