Sarah Gonzalez, Reporter, WNYC/NJPR
Sarah Gonzalez is the northern New Jersey enterprise reporter for WNYC and NJPR.
John Williams says he’s been living at Newark Penn Station for a couple months.
His nails are almost an inch long; his grey beard less groomed than he’d like. But the 60-year-old is dressed sharp in a light brown plaid suit.
“I done had it on for two months,” he said. “I don’t smell and stuff like that but that’s a problem, you got some people in here that really, really smell bad.”
Laws prevent transit police from asking anyone – including the homeless – to leave stations unless they’re breaking rules.
“We can sleep sitting up in here, but if you lay down in here they’re going to wake you,” Williams said. “They take a stick and stick you with it. Or hit on the side of the wall or the bench.”
Inspector Al Stiehler with NJ Transit Police says managing the homeless in train stations takes officers are away from their primary role, which is counter-terrorism and safety.
“Sometimes we’re dealing with the same person two, three times a day,” Stielher said. “They’re intoxicated, they go to the hospital, they come right back. They have a seizure, they go to the hospital, they come right back. Police officers didn’t have the tools to do what they needed. It was just a cycle.”
So NJ Transit has brought in someone with the right tools to offer the homeless more help.
Michelle Walsh is the Community Intervention Specialist with New Jersey Transit. She tries to get the homeless into shelters and connect them to programs that offer food and services. She says the program has two goals.
“Helping the homeless but also making it more comfortable for passengers when they’re riding through,” she said.
Walsh says she engages about 75 percent of the homeless in some way.
“Even if it looks like someone isn’t working with me, we might be working on… getting their birth certificate from a different state which takes time.”
Many of the homeless men and women have mental disorders, Walsh said. Many want to stay at train stations.
And they have the right to be there, according to Ed Barocas, the legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union in New Jersey.
“If someone is simply sitting up on a bench, whether they do it for a half hour or 4 hours that’s their right to do it,” Barocas said. “These are areas open to the public, and people who are homeless are a part of the public.”
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has given the state $24 million dollars to help with the homeless. And some of that money will go to organizations that New Jersey Transit partners with.
Buying a Ticket to Sleep on the Benches
John Williams says he prefers to stay at train stations where there are a lot of other homeless people – like a station in Summit. He says it makes him feel more comfortable.
And if he wants to sit, or rest his eyes, on the benches for ticketed passengers only, he knows what he needs to do.
“I have a ticket, okay. This is what you need to have to stay in,” Williams says. “If you doesn’t have that you’re going to have to go out in the cold.”
He doesn’t need to buy a train ticket every night in order to sleep on the benches.
“No I don’t buy a ticket every night. I buy a ticket one time, as long as it’s not punched it’s good. As long as it doesn’t have a hole in it. I done had this for two months.”
Once you’re on a train, a conductor come by with a hole-puncher, manually punching two holes in every passenger’s ticket.
If you never get on a train to get your ticket punched, your ticket will never expire.
Some of the homeless people at Newark Penn Station have been there for years. One has been at the station for 19 years; another for 26 years.
Paying for conductors costs taxpayers about $30 million a year.
Inspector Al Stiehler says NJ Transit has been tossing around ideas to create a system where tickets would eventually expire, but he says that’s way down the line.
He says train stations attract large homeless populations because they offer amenities the homeless can’t get elsewhere.
“They have access to liquor stores and bars, there’s people around here that can get money, there’s food, and they have 24/7 hour police protection. They’re not going to get that at a shelter.”
John Williams says he shouldn’t have to go to a shelter.
“Because I am a taxpayer,” he said. “Well, I used to be a taxpayer.”