Streams

One Train Ticket in New Jersey Can be Valid for Years ... If You Never Get on a Train

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

WNYC

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.”

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Comments [3]

Rob from Summit

Hey, Ross. Single males are not at all welcome in the majority of shelters. Most of them will refuse places to homeless men as they prefer women and children whom they consider to be less of a liability.

Even Governor Codey, with all the resources he had at his command, found it very difficult to get into one - when he was eventually accepted, he slept on a bare floor. Despite not being drunk and his fees having been paid in full, they would not give him a second night because he was a single male. Call him - he will tell you all about it at great length.

Also, shelters are only for the night. Where should these people go to keep warm in the winter? If they "loiter" anywhere else, they get moved on by the police. They really do have no other place to go.

As for "their filth", the few places that provide showers for the homeless tend to be in churches and community centers. No nice changing rooms with individual padlocks on lockers. They have to leave all their clothes and worldly possessions in a totally insecure area populated by people who are desperate. If your coat was the only thing that stops you freezing to death on a daily basis, would you risk it?

The vast majority of the homeless folks I interact with in NYC, Newark and Irvington keep themselves in pretty good shape and you would not realize that they were actually homeless. If they can find a place to wash up, they will. If they can find work, they will. But steady jobs are even harder to come by when you are of no fixed abode.

Speak to some of these people. Hear their stories. All it takes is for someone to lose their job then get sick in order to wipe out everything they put aside.

America is a wonderful place if you're doing well. If you fall by the wayside and have no backup (savings, family), you're screwed.

Apr. 08 2013 10:44 AM
Ross from Jersey City

Cathy, we do have shelters. These people are always welcome there. However, in a shelter, they are expected to stay sober and contribute in some way. For some people, they'd rather live in their own filth. Obviously you haven't ever entered a hallway in Newark Penn where you knew immediately there was someone sleeping there just from the smell, or else you would agree that these people do not belong in such a highly trafficked area.

Apr. 03 2013 04:09 PM
Cathy from Hoboken, NJ

I'm a New Jersey Transit commuter and I think that if our society does not provide any better option for the homeless than for them to at least have shelter at a train or bus station, it's the least everyone else can do to put up with the discomfort of having to walk past these people or not have a seat while waiting for 10 minutes for a train or bus en route to our warm homes. It's nothing compared to homeless people being forced to live on the street exposed to harsh weather and other dangers 24/7.

Apr. 03 2013 02:50 PM

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