Chicago Sun-Times Examines CTA Homeless Harassment

(Photo: Fairness is in the eye of the beholder.)

Lest regular readers think CHICAGO CARLESS has become all CTA-homeless-controversy all the time, I aim for the blog to have a more diverse drum beat this week.  But it bears noting that the Chicago Sun-Times covered the controversy in a detailed and balanced piece this morning on page 8 of the paper.

For the first time, Chicago Transit Authority President Ron Huberman weighed in on the issue. He called the new signage barring “continuous riding” through ‘L’ terminals part of an overall “sign upgrade” at stations, and that given the economy, the CTA is going to “watch” whether numbers of homeless riders are on the rise.

That’s all well and good, but my question remains what it has been since I first raised the issue of the signage back on November 22nd: and then what are you going to do?

While I’m glad this blog helped push the CTA to publicly respond to the seemingly unfair signage (for my previous coverage, see my Homeless archive), the agency is still mum on several key issues:

  • Why is a universal policy not being applied universally? No matter how many times CTA claims they aren’t targeting homeless riders with the new continuous-riding ban signage, as they told me in writing, agency staff decides whom to throw out of the system and whom to leave alone on a “case-by-case basis.”  That obviously includes homeless riders, yet doesn’t seem to include thousands of rush-hour riders who travel back to terminals to find seats in the other direction.
  • How does CTA track homeless riders? There is still no word from CTA how–or even whether–they track numbers of homeless riders, including data on riders asked to leave the system overall, in sub-freezing weather, and on nights when all of Chicago’s emergency homeless shelter beds are full.
  • What are the specifics of the outreach work done by agency staff before the homeless are ejected from the system? Are homeless riders asked whether they have money or means to make it to an alternative shelter? Given information on nearby shelters and other resources? Is the city’s Department of Homeless Services called each time a homeless rider is asked to leave the system? Your guess is as good as mine.

And those glaring omissions leave Chicago’s least-fortunate residents no better protected from Holiday-time harassment than before. I continue to maintain that as a publicly funded agency the CTA has a duty to show compassion to all members of the human family, to treat all with dignity and respect.

However, Huberman has circled the wagons here in time-honored Chicago style, allowing his agency to give answers that only appear to satisfy the real questions and brushing off any responsibility for the agency’s own actions. That’s no surprise, but lifelong Windy Citizens may suspect something more at work here. I’d bet money on it, myself.

As I wrote on December 4th, every city that has won the right to host an Olympic Games in the past 25 years has cracked down on its homeless population, downtown, near venues, and on the local transit system.  Los Angeles did it.  Atlanta did it.  Beijing just did it.  If the CTA’s new signage–and remarkable tenacity to defend it–are part of the City of Chicago’s ongoing strategy to prettify this town in advance of a potentially successful Olympic bid, both policy and attitude should be changed here and now. No human being deserves to be swept under the civic rug in order for others to gain.

Luckily, that’s becoming increasingly hard to do.  Take note, CTA: in the 21st century court of public opinion, a single blog post from a well-meaning citizen can spark a firestorm of attention with the power to push ill-conceived public policy and the agencies who make it into the limelight.

That may not change anything–at least not initially (especially not at an agency whose president refuses to communicate via email).  But as traditional media continues to contract and citizen journalism continues to rise to the fore, the days of the unquestioned official response are unquestionably over. It would do well for agencies like the CTA to think about that in the future. Especially during the run up to a potential Chicago Olympics.

Because the bullshit meter is pretty finely tuned in the virtual public realm.

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