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Chicago Public Radio, Cliff Kelley Show Cover CTA Homeless Crackdown

(Photo: Next time, I’ll take a taxi.)

UPDATE 9:45am: Ed Shurna, Executive Director of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, is quoted today in the Chi-Town Daily News:

“They should take those signs down and find a way to take care of people, not punish people. These are people who are cold, these are people who are poor, these are people who are suffering already. Why slap them in the face?”


Ten days ago when I first blogged in these pages and on Huffington Post Chicago about what looked like a crackdown on homeless riders by the Chicago Transit Authority, I could not have hoped for the citywide surge of interest in the welfare of the transit agency’s least fortunate riders that continues to coalesce.

Yesterday, I was invited to discuss the issue on two of Chicago’s most important radio programs: WBEZ 91.5 Chicago Public Radio’s Eight Forty-Eight morning show with Richard Steele; and WVON 1690-AM’s late-afternoon Cliff Kelley Show. (How I managed to run between WBEZ’s Navy Pier studio and WVON’s digs at 87th and Cottage Grove in little more than an hour while taking a number 87 bus the wrong way across the South Side is another story in itself.)

You can hear my Eight Forty-Eight interview with fellow former New Yorker Richard Steele in its entirety over the air on today’s show (airing at 9:00 a.m. and 8:00 p.m.), live-stream it at any time, or subscribe to the podcast. As always, Cliff Kelley’s show was live and there’s no podcast option here, but suffice it to say I was honored to meet both beloved radio icons and gratified at their interest in the issue.

And what an issue it is. To recap for new viewers, just in time for the holiday season and the frigid Windy City temperatures that go with it, the CTA has implemented a seemingly grinch-inspired policy to eject homeless riders from the ‘L’ system. New signs recently installed at rail terminals demand that riders exit the system and pay an additional fare before attempting to ride back in the other direction, an act called “continuous riding” by the transit agency. Chicago homeless advocates have little doubt who the new policy is aimed at.

Regular CTA customers––Like Yours Truly––know to expect a surge in overnight homeless riders during Chicago’s harsh winter months. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out who this ominous signage is aimed at.

The new signs, pictured below, are currently installed at all 24-hour rail terminals in the CTA system and at Midway Airport. According to the CTA, these facilities have the highest numbers of continuous-riding “violators”, although the agency says it plans to install the signs at all ‘L’ terminals.


In a detailed written exchange with the CTA regarding the signs that I published on November 22nd, the CTA denied the signs are aimed at homeless riders, telling me, “CTA does not make a distinction between homeless and any other fare paying customers.” Instead, the agency claims the signage was installed as a “customer service reminder” and that the continuous-riding ban applies equally to all riders.

However, when I noted that some CTA riders might have legitimate reasons for riding back from a terminal without exiting the system––for example, missing one’s stop or simply deciding not to continue with one’s trip––the transit agency responded that station staff are advised to “use their discretion” to make an “on-the-spot decision based on the circumstances of each customer” before asking a rider to leave the system.

It’s this case-by-case, discretionary application of a rule supposedly applying to all CTA customers equally that now has homeless advocates wondering who exactly the agency is trying to target with the new signs––and who will be singled out for expulsion from the ‘L’ system.

Shannon Moriarty, editor of the national homeless watchdog campaign at, is among those casting a doubtful eye at the continuous-riding ban. “If you ask me, there’s no question that this message is intended for the city’s homeless population,” writes Moriarty. “Why else would someone continuously ride the trains unless they were without a home and in need of a place to stay warm?”

The Chicago Coalition for the Homeless (CCH) shares Moriarty’s suspicion about the CTA’s motives. In response to the growing controversy, on Wednesday the organization publicly announced on its blog, “CCH will track any efforts to crack down on homeless people riding the CTA.”

Whether or not homeless riders are the explicit target of the continuous-riding ban, they stand to be the riders most impacted by it. In its written response regarding the new signage, the CTA told me that riders to whom station staff chooses to apply the continuous-riding ban will be asked to leave the system immediately, potentially by law enforcement.

If such expulsions occur during even a typical Chicago winter, the implications are pretty dire. Although the city’s Department of Human Services (DHS) deploys late-night homeless-outreach teams across the CTA rail system, the transit agency currently specifies no provision for a DHS team to be contacted before a rider is ejected from the system. Instead, under the current policy homeless riders can find themselves put out in the cold, in far-flung neighborhoods, with no care given to whether they have adequate means to make it back to warmth and shelter.

The stakes are particularly high for homeless riders who may be put off at the Red Line’s northern Howard terminal. The North Side’s only emergency homeless shelter (the REST facility at 5253 North Kenmore) closed its doors on Monday (December 1st) after losing its lease, making a trip on foot to an emergency shelter an impossibility. With no nearby shelter, an expulsion from the Howard terminal during the height of a Chicago winter could prove deadly for any homeless rider unlucky enough to be caught up in the CTA’s continuous-riding crackdown.

“What’s the problem with having someone just sitting on a train? Shall we try to throw homeless people off…because we don’t like the way they look or smell, or [because] they make us uncomfortable?” asks editor M. Leblanc on the widely read national feminist blog, Bitch Ph.D. “If [Chicago] is concerned about the city’s homeless riding on the trains all night, perhaps [it] should fund additional shelters instead of spending money on enforcement of a law that is unfair, cruel, and almost certain to be disproportionately applied.”

While it’s clear that spending the night on Chicago’s transit system is not a sustainable option for the city’s homeless, opportunity exists for the CTA to update its continuous-riding policy to make it less cruel and more constructive.

New options could include having station staff contact DHS outreach teams and other agencies with the means to transport homeless riders to shelters with the capacity to take them, providing homeless riders with a pre-printed list of the nearest shelters and resources in the vicinity of each terminal, and guaranteeing that no homeless rider will be ejected from the ‘L’ system during life-threatening outside temperatures.

Unfortunately, the CTA remains silent on any alternatives to the current continuous-riding ban. Until the agency comes up with something better, you can guess which blogger intends to keep a spotlight on the issue.

Just because some riders don’t want to be reminded that they share this city with citizens less fortunate than themselves, the CTA doesn’t have to cater to their cold-heartedness. CTA President Ron Huberman should rescind the current continuous-riding policy and replace it with one that treats the homeless with the compassion and dignity all human beings deserve.

No matter where they’ll be sleeping tonight.

[For all updates on this story, please see my Homeless archive.]

Categories: Best Of Chicago Carless Chicago Transit Authority Homeless News Media TRANSIT

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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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21 replies

  1. I have to say if the homeless want to ride the trains all nite they should find a bathroom to use. the trains reek of urine. I have move my set plenty of time because I could not take the smell… I agree with the cta I dont think they should even be on the trains at all… the police should take them to a shelter and the CTA should clean up the trains.. or get rid of the out house section in the train car.

    [Ed. note: The author is a resident of Oakland, CA, not Chicago.]

  2. I own a software company now, but when I was 19 I went homeless for a week or so in the winter, and you have no idea what it’s like having no place to go and somebody kicks you out into the cold. In warm weather, I understand, but when it’s 7 degrees out it’s inhumane.

    Funny, I bet some of you who are advocating against CTA’s availability to the homeless call yourselves Christians. You get to think you’re the only ones going to heaven & yet you act like self-serving bastards. You’re selfish fucking Pharisees is what you are.

  3. Ken ~ I’ve been riding the train since I’ve moved here in 2000. I do not drive. I understand that a lot of people exaggerate to try to back up their arguments. If I would have taken a picture, would you believe me? I was astounded. On an ordinary day, at an ordinary time, I have not encountered what happened that night on the Blue Line at midnight. But, I never ride the Blue Line at midnight from O’Hare. The train was 5 cars long or so — and I went in each of the first 3 cars before settling on the 4th. I am a woman traveling alone, which, your instincts would tell you, that I would make the effort of walking the extra yards to feel safe. I assure you, I am not stretching the truth.

    And as I stated, the people who “looked” homeless, crossed from one train inbound to one outbound. All of them.

    So, what if what I say is true? Or is your argument going to rest on the fact that you choose to believe that I’m lying and dismiss my story.

    Most certainly, the people I’m talking about weren’t just haggered commuters.

  4. Just a heads up, that will be the first and last off-topic rant on a third-party (Alderman Shiller) that I’ll post in this comment thread. Please keep your comments focused on the issue in question. And that is, the CTA and its relationship with homeless riders.

    Thanks all.

  5. Well put James C
    Better options need to be called out, for such emergency situations.
    Since I live in Uptown, it’s easy to be rather cynical, seeing as how Alderman Shiller, and her office, regularly proclaim/implement actions which seem downright dumb and destruction for the WHOLE community.
    Not to harp on it, but the 46th ward office is alarmingly out of touch with the greater good.

  6. My experience as a social worker is that when we tolerate or encourage the homeless to remain isolated in their situation (such as using CTA as a shelter), it drives them deeper into the cycle of homelessness. Social workers and social service agencies that are committed to the use of best practices to help the homeless would not want their clients to use the CTA as an option. It deepens their isolation.

    The causes of homelessness are many. Tolerating or encouraging “just one night” on the train often falls into another night, and then another night, and it goes on. I fail to see compassion when the homeless are enabled to isolate themselves from getting needed help.

    There should, however, be more effort made to coordinate CTA’s efforts with linking the homeless with the Dept. of Human Services.

  7. It’s a transit system, not a homeless shelter. And really, the homeless can just get off a stop short of the terminal and no one would be the wiser. Plus, who is going to implement this policy? The CTA workers? Funny stuff there.

  8. my point exactly JHalf.

    A person trying to ‘keep warm’ is NOT the same as a crazy, drug-feuled individual who….pardon my French….has crapped in his/her pants on a regular basis.

  9. The CTA has a right to not allow people to use the train as a hotel room. I would hope compassion would be exercised by the individuals carrying out the implementation of the rule, but it doesn’t mean the rule itself is wrong.

  10. Just to add to my prior comment, while the CTA signs might seem a bit harsh, I’m sure the policy applies to the more extreme cases. I think a good parallel is the airlines. If I’m paying for a seat, you better believe I’m all for the airline
    removing someone who is either drunk, drug-crazed, or lacks any hygiene whatsoever.

    And trust me…..a lot of homeless people on, or off the train up here in Uptown, fall into the drunk/drug crazed and menacing category.

  11. The CTA is quite possibly the worst mass transit system in the USA, if not globaly. The employees are largely responsible for this and thier actions are almost always innappropriate in almost every situation (save actually moving from A to B, albiet never on time). The homeless who are basically given carte blanche on the CTA are driving up the costs and driving down the quality of the system. Why is this even a sensitive issue, because the CTA has heat? Churches also have heat but we do not see them overflowing with homeless. Those who wear thier hearts on thier shoulders are the same ones who proposed being `human shields` at the onset of the war. Where are these people now and why do they not allow the homeless to camp in their condo/apartment lobbies during the cold. Surely the holier than thou (most of whom probably do not even ride the CTA), can think of other warm places that they would never consider allowing the homeless to stay for aesthetic reasons. Buck up Chicagoans! Remove the freeloaders from the system. If it is heat they seek, there ARE other much less system clogging alternatives. I for one will not apologize for not wanting smelly, vulgar, aggressive and sometimes violent free loaders on the trains I take.

  12. Thank you all for your markedly thoughtful comments on this story.

    Specifically for Karen: I agree, anyone making a nuisance of themselves, homeless or not, should certainly be removed from CTA facilities. However, if a homeless person merely offends one’s eyes or nose, that’s no reason to put them out in the cold. I’ve ridden with plenty of non-homeless CTA riders with questionable hygiene, haven’t you? If smelliness were a criterion for getting kicked off the ‘L’, there’d be a lot fewer people riding in the first place.

  13. I think there should be some balance between saftey and understanding here. I have no problem with someone riding the train over and over again when it is empty at night.

    I have actually had my worst experiences with people getting on the Green line and starting fights in the train cars and not with homeless people.

    True, no one wants to be stared down and asked for cash every day on their way to and from work and no one enjoys most of the smells.

    Yet no one is in favor of dumping people in the below zero weather this winter either if there isn’t a saftey issue.

    More outreach is desperatley needed in the west side by green lines as well as the other areas of the city.

  14. “My personal experiences on the train triggered a reaction which might not have been evoked had each car not had an abundance of homeless.”

    An abundance of homeless? On each car? Really? I’ve been riding the train on a pretty regular basis since the ’70s and at best seen about three homeless guys on an entire train in different cars. Not sure if all the guys you saw were “homeless”. Just being disheveled and sleeping on a train late at night doesn’t mean they’re homeless. Are there any numbers on how many homeless they (the CTA, homeless advocates, etc.) think use the train on a continuous basis in the winter?

  15. Mike,
    I flew into O’Hare from the Holidays around midnight on Sunday. As I approached the escalator for the Blue Line, an inbound train arrived. Several people crossed over from the inbound to the newly opened outbound. When I arrived at the last train car of the outbound, 5 homeless riders were settling in. All of which were taking up 2 seats. The next car had 5 more and the next car had 6.

    The CTA workers did not harrass them. In fact, their only action towards the crossovers was to knock on the glass of the newly arrived inbound train to wake them up. When they woke, they immediately crossed to the other train.

    Better outreach would be a great solution. But, at the same time, it doesn’t make some who ride the train late at night because they don’t have other choices less compassionate because they don’t want to ride with homeless people.

    I’ve had a few dangerous incidents on the train. After reporting to the CTA, they did nothing to offer me any kind of assistance. It isn’t just about being compassionate to the homeless, it’s also about being proactive when crimes occur on the trains. The CTA needs an overhaul, no doubt. But, again, it doesn’t make me less compassionate. My personal experiences on the train triggered a reaction which might not have been evoked had each car not had an abundance of homeless.

  16. I’d have to say I side with the CTA.
    As a 15 year resident of Uptown, I’ve witnessed the Alderman create a ground zero of social services gone wrong. It’s killing the neighborhood.

    I’ve also been witness to many a urine soaked train car, and been menaced by individuals who are obviously ‘camped out’ on the train, and not necessarily escaping the cold weather.

    Nobody should freeze, but the CTA has to draw the line somewhere.

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