New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo began his April 28 press conference stressing that, in order to expertly navigate the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, people needed to distance themselves from their emotions.
“Separate the emotion from the logic,” he said before adding: “Don’t be emotional, don’t be political.”
Half an hour later, Cuomo was holding up the front page of the New York Daily News with a photo of a homeless person and their belongings filling the width of a subway car and the headline “NEXT STOP, PURGATORY.”
“Respect the essential workers,” the governor said. “That is disgusting what is happening on those subway cars. It’s disrespectful to the essential workers who need to ride the subway system.”
Despite his own advice, Cuomo was practicing the politics of emotion, pitting the city’s essential workers and homeless population against one another—two groups who, due to existing inequities of racism and poverty, have largely been left to fend for themselves during the pandemic.
“They deserve better and they will have better,” the governor said, taking one side of the division he had just conjured. “We have to have a public transportation system that is clean, where the trains are disinfected.”
Only then did he raise the interests of the other people involved. “You have homeless people on trains,” he continued. “It’s not even safe for the homeless people to be on trains. No face masks. You have this whole outbreak. We’re concerned about homeless people, so we let them stay on the trains without protection in this epidemic of the Covid virus? No. We have to do better than that, and we will.”
But he had laid out his priorities: The homeless people trying to ride out the pandemic on the subways were principally a problem for the subways. The disgust he focused on was to be addressed by emptying out and disinfecting the train cars, not by giving unsheltered people a more suitable place to go.
The subway, like the pandemic response, is the governor’s job. The New York City Transit Authority is a subsidiary of the state-run Metropolitan Transit Authority, which is controlled by a Cuomo-appointed chairman and, at times, Cuomo himself. On Wednesday, the governor demanded a plan from the NYCTA detailing how they will clean and disinfect each train car nightly. During a Wednesday press conference, interim president Sarah Feinberg said MTA workers were disinfecting every 72 hours with a bleach product or a disinfectant and cleaning—wiping up spills, sweeping, etc.—on a daily basis. The next day, the MTA said stations would be closed from 1 a.m. until 5 a.m. every night during the pandemic to clean train cars. Two days ago, MTA rebuffed Mayor Bill de Blasio’s suggestion to pursue the closures. Cuomo added that free transportation for essential workers will be provided while the stations are shut down.
The back-and-forth about station closures exemplified the disagreement about who takes responsibility for the homeless, and how they do it. The MTA and Cuomo tosses the blame for the city’s homeless population sleeping on trains to de Blasio, who often snipes back. This week, Feinberg said she’d asked de Blasio to expand police presence in a program where officers and advocates coax homeless people off the trains and connect them with social services, so that it could better cover all the system’s end-of-the line stations. She also said the MTA’s code of conduct had been amended to prohibit people from staying in a station for longer than an hour, to require everyone to get off a train after an “out of service” announcement, and to ban wheeled carts greater than 30 inches in width or length—which includes the grocery and shopping carts homeless people use to haul their belongings.
Officials who may not always play well together are managing to focus on protecting the train cars from the conditions of the people. Other than demanding more frequent sanitation efforts and showcasing a willingness to further criminalize poverty in NYC, Cuomo offered no real ideas or solutions to address why people need to shelter on trains in the first place. (By the time of publication, the governor’s office had not responded to a request for comment.)
“If you want to help homeless New Yorkers move off the subways and the streets, you need to offer them somewhere safe to go,” said Giselle Routhier, Policy Director at Coalition for the Homeless. “During this pandemic, many homeless New Yorkers are rightfully afraid of crowded congregate shelters, where COVID-19 continues to spread. More policing won’t stop homeless individuals from taking refuge in the subways, because it doesn’t address what people actually need: safe, private space so they can take the advice of health officials to maintain social distance.”