(Photo: Next time, I’ll take a taxi.)
“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 CTA SPIN GAME
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 Change.org, 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.”
OUT IN THE COLD WITH NOWHERE TO GO
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.”
A COMPASSIONATE WAY FORWARD
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.]
Michael Thaddeus Doyle
I'm a NYC-native, Latino, Jew-by-choice, hardcore WDW fan in Chicago with an Irish last name. I believe in social justice, big cities, and public transit. I do nonprofit development. I've written this blog since 2005. Believe in the world you want to live in.