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CTA’s Holiday Homeless Harassment

(Photo: The Chicago Transit Authority wants you to believe that this sign is not aimed directly at the homeless. Really.)

(DECEMBER 2, 2008: For the latest updates on this story, please also see today’s post here or browse my Homeless archive.)

During the past few weeks of waning daylight, waxing chill, and growing holiday spirit, the Chicago Transit Authority has been busy installing new signage at rail terminals on the CTA ‘L’. The message on the signs–an example of which appears above–is clear, and a bit ominous: they demand an additional fare from any rider who wants to depart the terminal in the opposite direction from which they arrived.

The reason for the signs is a lot murkier. A rider arriving at a rail terminal and immediately departing again without exiting obviously hasn’t made a constructive trip. However, it’s hard to see who they’d be harming by such “continuous riding”, as the CTA calls the practice.

Unless, of course, that rider is a homeless person. Any regular ‘L’ rider can attest to the wave of homeless Chicagoans who take to the warm interiors of CTA rail cars during the city’s brutal winter months. Although generally a benign presence in the system, their downtrodden visual appearance–and in many cases odor–earns them the ire of many fellow, more fortunate passengers.

With that in mind, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out why the CTA would hurry to install the aforementioned signage at the start of another Windy City winter.  Of course, it isn’t necessarily legal to single out homeless people and deny them service.  (Just ask the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless about the numerous cases they’ve won against housing-status discrimination).  Especially a public service like transit.

So last week, I contacted the CTA’s public affairs department and asked them several specific questions regarding the new signs. I think the CTA’s bureaucratically spin-meistered answers speak for themselves–and not in a good way.  I present them below for your consideration, together with my own far more straightforward reactions upon reading them.

MIKE DOYLE: Why were the signs installed?
CTA: “The signs were installed to remind CTA customers of the policy which prohibits customers from continuously riding the same line without payment of another fare, and as an aid to law enforcement in dealing with violators of this rule.”

Really? When did this alleged crime wave of continuous riders crop up to the level that law enforcement needs an aid to keep the problem at bay? If such a problem actually exists, where’s the harm in a customer not exiting at a given station?  And for that matter, when exactly did the CTA ever tell riders about this policy in the first place?

Who directed the signs to be installed?
“CTA management made the decision to post the reminder for customers as a customer service.”

So CTA management thinks that threatening riders with expulsion from the ‘L’ system for violating an obscure policy that is rarely mentioned and even more rarely enforced is good customer service? Not that I’d be surprised–it’s not like it would be the first, or second, or third, or even fourth time the agency’s taken a similarly customer-unfriendly stance in recent memory.

Where have they been installed and where are they planned to be installed in the future?
“The signs are currently installed at Howard, 95th, O’Hare and Forest Park (the terminals of 24-hour lines) and Midway. They eventually will be installed at all rail terminals.”

Since CTA installed these signs first at 24-hour terminals, it would seem to me the agency thinks the problem is worse during late-night hours.  Hmm, I wonder what type of rider would attempt to continuously ride during these hours…

Who chose these locations and why?
“CTA chose to post the signs at the 24-hour terminals first because the agency believes those are the locations that have the biggest number of continuous riding violators. As mentioned above, the signs will eventually be installed at all CTA rail terminals.”

Didn’t mean to steal your thunder there, CTA.  So now you’ve got me wondering even more, just who are these late-night “violators” you’re targeting here?

What is the legal basis for the signs?  i.e. Is this rule officially codified in CTA’s existing rules and regulations and if so, where? If you can cite and quote the codified rule in your answer that would be a great help.) If there is not legally codified rule, what is the basis for these signs and the rule posted on them?
“Payment of fares for CTA service is governed by State statute.The Metropolitan Transit Authority Act, 70 ILCS 3605/31 gives CTA the statutory power to make all rules that are proper and necessary to regulate the use, operation and maintenance of all property owned, operated or maintained by CTA which also includes the right to impose fines and penalties for violation of those rules. Non-payment of the appropriate fare is considered theft of service.”

Careful readers will note the CTA did not answer my question. I asked to learn what is the specific rule justifying the new signs. I was told that CTA has the authority to make its own rules. What I wasn’t told was whether the CTA actually as a specific, codified rule barring continuous riding. Is it written into the agency’s regulations that such riding constitutes “theft of service”? After a week of deliberation on my questions by the CTA, that one is still unanswered. And even if it was–what exactly are riders stealing if they take a trip to nowhere by not exiting at a terminal?

The sign says that riders must leave and re-enter the station and must pay another fare.  However, riders with transfers left on their Transit or Chicago cards would not be paying an additional fare to enter.  Also, riders missing their stop and ending up at terminals would seem to be affected as well.
“The sign states customers must pay ‘an additional fare.’ If a customer still has a transfer eligible on their farecard it would constitute payment of another fare as CTA’s current fare schedule allows for the use of transfers for return trips. However, instances of customers missing their stops and having to ride back don’t occur very often.Most people do exit at their destinations so when a trains arrives at the end of the line, everyone should be exiting the train.

“Theoretically customers missing their stop and having to back-ride to their missed station would also be included in the group this policy affects, although it is at the discretion of CTA personnel and the Chicago Police Department (CPD) to make an on-the-spot decision based on the circumstances of each customer.”

Theoretically? You mean actually, don’t you? Your rules and regulations are applied to all riders equally, aren’t they? And for that to happen, to make this rule work and not apply it in a discriminatory manner, you’d have to toss off those “legitimate”, transfer-bearing, stop-missing riders along with everyone else, right?

Wait…discretionary on-the-spot decisions? Now I’m confused. So you’re saying CTA personnel may actually apply this rule in an unequal manner based on subjective decision about the “circumstances” of each rider? Exactly what “circumstances” are you referring to? And how is an inequitably applied rule not a discriminatory one?

As these signs are specifically written, riders with transfers would seem to be asked to pay additional fares that they have already paid and riders who have missed their stop would not be allowed to correct their mistake without paying another fare.  How does the CTA intend to deal with those situations?
“Employees are trained to use discretion before contacting the control center to report a continuous rider and have been alerted to the possibility that a customer may have missed his/her stop and is just attempting to reverse back.

“Staff is advised to make sure they differentiate between such customers, and those who are continuously riding our transit system. However customers are required to pay an additional fare whenever they reach the end of a route and want to continue their travel. Customers with 30-Day, 7-Day or Visitor/Fun Passes must also re-insert (or touch to touchpad if a Chicago Card) their farecard into the farecard machine if continuing their travel or reversing their ride.”

Wow.  Just wow. You are actually telling me that the CTA has a standing policy for station employees to single classes of customers out to apply agency rules and regulations. You’re saying that in practice, the universal “continuous riding” ban is not applied universally. So I’m led right back to ponder, who is it you’re trying to single out here?

Homeless advocates may worry that the signage is aimed specifically at homeless riders (many of whom will have paid their fare to enter the system).  Is that so?
“No, it is not. The signs were posted as a customer service reminder to all CTA customers that the payment of fares only entitles them to a one-way ride and/or transfer and all customers must exit the bus or train at the end of the line.  CTA does not make a distinction between homeless and any other fare paying customers.  All individuals who pay fares are afforded the same rights on public transit as long as they are not violating any CTA ordinances or breaking any laws.

“CTA partners with the City of Chicago’s Department of Human Services (DHS) on a cooperative program to provide assistance to the homeless. DHS provides outreach services to homeless individuals 23 hours a day.”

You know, I used to be a grammar teacher, so I assure you that the word I’m about to use fits the CTA’s answer perfectly: bullshit. Given the agency’s above answers, they’ve simply lost me here. I’m supposed to believe that with a Chicago winter of high homeless ridership approaching, they casually decided to post these signs as a “customer service”? A “simple reminder”? I don’t believe it. Not one word. I’m wracking my brain to try and figure out what reason on earth could these signs serve other than to give the CTA cover for kicking out homeless riders. Can anyone help me here?

How does the CTA intend to discern which riders are “continuously riding”?  For example, a person appearing homeless may exit a train and attempt to board a train in the other direction at a terminal. How will the CTA, Securitas, or CPD determine whether the rider is a legitimate passenger?

It would seem to me that unless the CTA is intending to selectively target riders with this signage for expulsion from the system, which would obviously raise legal concerns, how can the CTA enforce this rule at all without forcing all riders–including those with legitimate reasons to be riding (missed stop, transfer on card, simply changed mind, etc.) to leave the system?
“CTA personnel check trains and buses at the end of each trip.  These checks are for spot cleaning and to ensure that no one remains on the vehicle planning to continue their ride without paying the appropriate fare.  If an individual does not exit the vehicle at the end of its route and does not need or refuses assistance, CTA personnel will inform the customer that riding the train or bus continuously is not permitted and will ask them to exit the vehicle.

“If the individual refuses to do so, personnel will notify the CTA Control Center which in turn will inform the Chicago Police Department (CPD) that someone refuses to exit and asks for assistance. CPD will escort the individual from the train or bus.  If the individual refuses to leave the train or bus, the person can be arrested per the discretion of the police.”

Hands up, CTA riders, any one of you who in your entire life has ever seen a CTA customer–who wasn’t homeless–asked to leave a train at a terminal? Anyone?  Is that crickets chirping that I hear?

No matter the CTA’s double-speak here, it’s pretty clear who these new “continuous riding” signs are aimed at. I can’t imagine a reasonable Chicagoan believing that homeless people are not the obvious and only target here.

What I can imagine is a reasonable person asking themselves why the CTA would implement such a policy in the first place. Not only why, but who–who is being harmed from continuous riding and, most importantly, who is committing the alleged harm? And I can also easily imagine any reasonable person coming up with the same answers I did.

In summary and in my opinion, the CTA has made a deliberate decision to target homeless customers for ejection from the system because they know they probably won’t have the money to get back in, and is attempting to hide its discriminatory policy behind a universally applicable rule that the agency has no intention of applying universally.  And that stinks.

The holidays are coming, and so is our annual two months of zero-degree January and February weather. At this time of year, a better use for CTA money and manpower would have been for the agency to create its own homeless outreach division (much like NYC Transit’s longtime successful initiative) to help get those continuously riding customers into appropriate shelters instead of pawning the effort off on DHS. For a public agency in Chicago to instead threaten to throw homeless people out onto freezing streets in far-flung corners of the city without as much as caring wether they have the means to get to a shelter is unnecessary and cruel in equal measure.

If a heartless policy like that is the best the CTA can muster five weeks before Christmas, then I hope agency head Ron Huberman doesn’t believe in Santa Claus. Because if the fat guy in the red suit does exist, if I were Huberman I’d expect to find nothing more than a fat lump of coal in my stocking come December 25th.

And deservedly so.

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Mike Doyle

I’m an #OpenlyAutistic gay, Hispanic, urbanist, Disney World fan, New York native, politically independent, Jewish blogger in Chicago. I believe in social justice, big cities, and public transit. I write words and raise money for nonprofits. I’ve written this blog since 2005. And counting...

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30 replies

  1. I know this comment is years after this was written, but it’s as true today as it was then. Yes, they know where the shelters are. Yes, some don’t like the rules and are choosing not to go. However, there are a few things you forget. First, you do not know this to be a fact for every single homeless person riding the train. That would be a sociologically invalid statement. Second, just because a person knows where a shelter is, doesn’t mean there is enough room. You are assuming the shelters in this city all have the same rules, and together, they have enough room to house ALL of the homeless, ALL of the time. You can follow the rules 100%, show up on time to get in, and not have a place to stay anyway. No, it’s not CTA’s job to house the homeless. It’s not their job to discriminate against them either.

  2. The rule-breaking is, if I were a CTA employee, is called “train-jumping”, similar to the violation of fare-jumping…of course, going under the turnstile or jumping over it without paying the fare on a train station is ,of course, “blatant fare-jumping,” which will likely get you under arrest and you will be likely be fined up to $300 for violating the Chicago Municipal Code. But “train-jumping”…I think there is racial profiling for violators, especially Blacks. If they get threatened with a $300 fine for “train-jumping”, or, in dangerous cases, a lifetime “ban” from riding the CTA buses or trains……this is going to make them think twice before doing this again. Therefore, to prevent lawsuits against the CTA, the CTA should be much clearer in this new “no-train-jumping” decree…that is, who is clearly exempt, and who is violating it.

  3. When CTA personell encounter a homeless person the control center is notified and the homeless person is referred to people who can help. The homeless person I spoke with said these shelters are full of ” bullies” who take their money and other belongings, so he does’nt go to them anymore. The only time people MUST leave a train is at the end of the line. Trains usually must enter a railyard in order to be sent back the other way. For safety reasons only CTA personell or authorized persons can enter railyards. It is extremely dangerous to untrained individuals in these yards. Also not all trains are sent back, some are taken out of service at the end of the line for various reasons.
    The fact is people are not paying extra fares at the end of the lines, homeless or not. I ride the Red line every day and on several occassions I have seen people sit in seats soaked in urine from the homeless person who just got up. I won’t mention what else they leave for you to sit or step in. So yes, it’s a big problem for riders and the CTA. I don’t know if the signs will help. Seems impossible to inforce. I also don’t want to see homeless people forced out into the cold. I’m glad I’m not the CTA.

  4. As a frequent late night rider I applaud the CTA for having the guts to try to tackle this problem given all the outrage I’m sure they knew it would create.

    The vast majority of homeless people know they have shelters available to them, but choose not to use them or have been banned from them.

    It is not the mission of the CTA to provide shelter for the homeless, nor should it be the mission of the CTA to provide anything but transit from point A to point B.

    First off the CTA is having enough problems taking care of its actual ridership without taking on the liability that the homeless create by riding on trains all night and day. When they cause disturbances, or themselves become victims of crime, or have a health problem and need help – these are all things CTA should not have to deal with.

    Other riders should not have to deal with a train car full of people sleeping, their belongings spread across two or three seats. The stench, which some but not all, have which spreads across the entire car. The food, the garbage, the occasional puddle of urine.

    When the train gets to the end of line its time to get off unless you are lost or missed your stop for some reason. Years ago the homeless were purged from setting up camp at O’Hare Airport, and now the CTA is finally trying to do the same thing.

  5. As someone who works for a transit agency, I can attest to the fact that (1) having people loitering on vehicles does reduce capacity for other people who wish to use those vehicles to actually go somewhere and (2) having too many undesirables (however that is defined) on a vehicle decreases ridership and reduces revenue.

    I worked for an agency that were to an entirely fare-free policy in the early 2000’s, and the homeless would ride the buses all day long. This diminished the quality and quantity of seats available to those who actually needed the service to do its primary function: moving people from A to B. Consequently, a similar policy of “no consecutive rides” was implemented. No one has the exclusive right to occupy public property for as long as he/she wants, especially when others are waiting to use it.

    If the public wants to use CTA vehicles as ‘mobile shelters’ during part or all of the winter months, it will have to also get used to more fare-paying passengers being passed up by overcrowded vehicles and/or higher fares to justify increasing the number of vehicles on the line.

  6. [Ed. Note: The following comment was edited for clarity:]

    I have nothing to say about “continuous riders”, but CTA has changed leadership in the past 2 or 3 years and the new head has not made any improvements such as sanitary cleaning. Homeless individuals are another case. These persons are lost in many ways there is no help of many kinds for them. They may have many different problems, and no social workers [to help]. So if unsanitary conditions present themselves and this is known, then something must be done for the basic good of regular riders.

  7. I agree with Robert. I don’t think what NYC is doing matters, because like he said, they are having major service cutbacks. I do agree that it is directed at the homeless, but I also don’t think the CTA trains should be a homeless shelter, because people like me do not find it appealing to be alone on a night time el train with a homeless person, and adding on to Mike’s comment saying he would rather be on a train with a homeless person who stinks instead of someone throwing up on you, If a CTA employee were to see this happening, they would probably kick them off as well. I do agree that this is aimed at homeless people because last saturday I was at the 87th red line station waiting for the “Holiday” train when a cop told me and another family to take the SB train to 95th, because it would be late and people were taking pictures. Well, the SB train sat outside of 95th for 7 minutes, and we watched the holiday train go by us, so we had to immediately board a NB red line at 95th, and nobody said anything to us when we did so.

  8. The rule about people getting off the bus when it gets to the end of a route is rarely enforced–at least in my experience. I get on the WB Montrose bus fairly often at Marine Drive. Sometimes there are people already on the bus, and sometimes drivers tell these people they have to get off or pay again. I’ve never paid attention to the socioeconomic status of people being told to leave, but I think I’ll start taking notes.

  9. “Has anyone brought up the fact that riders are told to leave buses at the ends of their routes? No? Well, let’s remember that when we’re appalled to learn the CTA would ask everyone to leave the trains at the end of their route and pay an additional fare. ”

    Robert, you’re missing the point. It’s not that people are being told you can’t stay on the train. Everyone knows that (and I one who fell asleep on a train one time and ended up in the rail yard, it’s a counterproductive move in many ways). The point is that the CTA is telling you that you can’t go to the end of the line, get off the train (as you should) and get on the train heading out the otherway. I’ve seen people who live near the end of the line get on the train (say Jarvis on the Red Line), ride it to the end (Howard), then get on the other train heading out (back to the Loop). Why? So they can get a seat in the morning rush hour. But now, according to the CTA you can’t do that. It’s not that people won’t get off the train, it’s that the CTA is telling them they can’t get back on.

    1. Great point about Howard, Ken. I ride up to Howard from a few stops south — only occasionally — when I know that I want to go to a Loop L station and the Purple Line is running. (Besides, I like that “express” trip, since it reminds me a teeny bit of the 4-track lines there.)

  10. I have seen numerous times riders get on a bus near the end of a route in order to head back in the reverse direction (especially here at Marina City where the #62 turns around) without drivers asking them to leave.

    That’s the point: this is an allegedly universal policy that is not applied equally to everyone –that’s the problem. It’s only applied to riders who the CTA chooses to apply it to. And that’s discriminatory.

  11. I’m going to side with the CTA on this one, not because I believe all their rules are correct or I enjoy a visual symbol of fascism, but because I can see both sides. And for the record, I care little for whatever NY’s transit system does or provides their citizens–riders or derelicts included. They currently have a plethora of severe cost-cutting of their own to do, so let us look at our own sorry-ass CTA’s situation.

    Has anyone brought up the fact that riders are told to leave buses at the ends of their routes? No? Well, let’s remember that when we’re appalled to learn the CTA would ask everyone to leave the trains at the end of their route and pay an additional fare. When a bus gets to the end, the bus driver informs everyone that “this” is the end of the route, and they have to leave. The bus driver then either exits the bus, starts blabbing on their cellphone, has a cigarette, runs into a nearby business to use the bathroom…whatever. The point here is CTA buses have required riders to exit and reboard/repay for decades. I’m sorry the CTA didn’t install fancy signage indicating this rule, but myriad rules don’t always get posted.

    If there is one, and perhaps only one, positive I see about the mentioned CTA signage, is that, for once the signage looks like it was designed by a graphic designer and not by the top graduate of a drafting class, circa 1979.

  12. Mike,

    This post was well written, and biting in its commentary. I’m glad you are able to use your “loud” voice to question unfair policies, like this one from the CTA.

  13. Ken, I stand with you on this one. Even if the homeless are continuously riding, the only thing they are potentially hurting is the comfort zone of some fellow riders who would rather not be reminded that they share the planet with less fortunate souls.

    I guess the CTA is afraid those riders will go elsewhere (like into their cars) and reduce CTA revenue. But that doesn’t make it right to implement policy based on prejudice and unfairness.

    I’m still waiting for the CTA to announce a more compassionate policy today. Considering Rich Miller linked to this blog post from the Capitol Fax Blog and NBC 5 covered it, it’s a safe bet CTA management–along with city and state elected officials who fund the CTA–are aware of it.

  14. I’m torn on this. On the one hand, it’s not the CTA’s job to provide “housing” for the homeless. On the other, who are they hurting, other than people who get “offended” by their presences for whatever reason (and they’d be offended by the homeless no matter where they encountered them.. ‘Ugh, why does that homeless guy have to hang out in front of that shelter?’). So basically the people who don’t want them on there just want them out of their sight.

    If they could show me where the homeless presence is creating a significant financial hardship for the agency, I’d support them on this. (Do they cause the CTAto miss a substantial number of fares becaue they take up seats? Do potential fares change their mind and take cabs when they learn there are homeless people on the el cars?) As it stands, who cares?

  15. Dave, I can only assume you’re not a regular reader. If I had a girlfriend I’d have to be heterosexual and neither one of those things is ever likely to be the case for me.

    You’re correct, it is not CTA’s mission to be a social service agency. However, it is not a crime to be homeless, nor, more importantly, is it a choice. Attitudes that equate sharing proximity on the planet with a homeless person to likelihood of crime just fan the flames of prejudice.

    I can think of a few types of people I’d rather not share a late-night ‘L’ car with. Drunken yelling DePaul frat guys; vomiting Trixie party girls; trouble-seeking gangbangers; Jesus prosthelytizers. None of these folks are homeless, yet they’re all a nuisance in their own way.

    Given these overnight characters, why is it the homeless riders getting thrown out? I’d rather ride a train with someone who might need a shower than someone who might throw up on my shoes, thank you very much.

  16. As Chris pointed out above, it is not the CTA’s mission or job to care for the homeless. Unfortunately at this point I do not think it is the best use of money for the CTA to create an “outreach” program.

    I do NOT support continuous riding by anyone on the trains, especially the homeless. Call that heartless if you want, but there are plenty of shelters that ARE available. And despite what many people may think, nearly all homeless people DO know about the shelters. They are just unwilling to follow shelter rules regarding drinking, drugs, etc. These are not the type of people we want riding around on the trains late at night. Would you want your girlfriend riding around on such a train at 3 AM?

  17. What about those stops that are considered free transfer points. Fullerton, Belmont, State/Lake, Clark/Lake, Library/Van Buren, Roosevelt and others. Changing trains at that point must mean that’s continuous riding as well. M I rite?

  18. I agree that this new policy is directed at the homeless. And I can understand CTA’s point of view. Their mission is not to house the homeless; it’s to transport legitimate customers from one point to another with minimal hassle. Housing the homeless is a DHS mission.

    At this time of year, the homeless who normally wander the streets take to the warmth of the 24-hour trains – which is unfair to the legitimate, fare-paying customers. My assumption (since they’re only now acting on it) is that this has become an increasing problem or is expected to this season. And it does have the potential to become a big problem – if all the city’s homeless take shelter on the trains, the fare-paying customers who keep the CTA in business would then be left out in the cold, quite literally.

    Not all public agencies have a responsibility to deal with the homeless issue. It’s why we create separate agencies with distinct responsibilities and apportion tax dollars appropriately (or inappropriately, some might say in reference to homelessness). I don’t believe the CTA should be in the business of housing the homeless in winter.

    Having said that, this new approach is all wrong. I followed your link to the NYC initiative, and that seems to be the right approach – or at least something CTA should look into. There’s no reason the CTA can’t team up with local shelters to get the homeless on their property into warm beds, warm showers, and warm clothes. It may not be a legal obligation, but it’s a compassionate thing to do.

    My only fear with getting the CTA involved in a program like this is the Chicago Police Department. Recent lawsuits (including one filed yesterday) highlight what appears to be rampant CPD abuse. Do we really think the CPD transit detail is going to be anymore understanding?

    I don’t know what the solution is, but it’s not kicking the homeless out into the cold, and it’s not providing shelter for them – the former is cruel, the latter not part of their mission. Perhaps a team of volunteers from outside the CTA/CPD. Perhaps a handful of staff trained to recognize signs of homelessness and offer assistance, compassionately – the last thing we need is more abrasive, abusive public servants who’d rather be “anywhere but here” (both the CTA and CPD have more than their share of those).

    If the problem is as big as the CTA seems to think it is, then they need to come up with a better solution than pursuing a policy that puts the CTA into direct conflict with the will of the public they are supposed to serve.

  19. Thanks, Ann. You know, honestly I expected more from CTA’s answers than the thinly veiled corporate-speak non-answers that I got back. And it took a week and two calls with CTA’s media relations people to get those answers back, too!

    When I finally read them, my heart sank. I was hoping for anything that would make that conclusion less obvious. Hopefully, someone at CTA reads this post (here or on Huffington Post Chicago) and rethinks this uncharitable policy.

  20. Thanks for thinking to ask the CTA those questions instead of jumping to the obvious (and now much more obvious!) conclusion. Excellent reporting.

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