A night in the terminal The dilemma of train stations as de facto homeless shelters
by : Caren Lissner Reporter Editor
Mar 26, 2001 | 3370 views | 0 0 comments | 11 11 recommendations | email to a friend | print
"Janis" spends the bulk of each day worrying about whether someone will swipe her sleeping spot in the train station at night. In some ways, it's a more vexing job than going to a warm office and sitting at a computer.

"The most important thing is that spot," Janis tells me one evening, sitting on one of the Hoboken train terminal's long wooden benches. "I spend the day thinking about what's going to happen later. Which cops are working tonight? How am I going to get to that spot? How am I going to get into the bathroom? How am I going to sneak around them? I memorize the license plates of cops' cars to know who's working. I don't want to be tired the next day. The next day, it starts all over again. That's why you see homeless people sleeping all day. It's not because they're lazy; it's because they're being awakened 24/7."

She adds, "This is what your life revolves around. You spend so much energy invested in this that you have little time for anything else."

For the homeless, train and bus stations are the only places to stay at night if they can't get into a homeless shelter or don't feel comfortable at one. And this presents a dilemma for those in charge of the stations.

Transit companies were not formed as social service agencies. But because their buildings are public, warm, and open late at night, they have become homeless shelters by default. A look at the Port Authority Bus Terminal in Manhattan, the 33rd and 14th Street PATH stations, Hoboken's train terminal or Journal Square at night can make that clear.

In the last few weeks, the homeless people who cluster in Hoboken's train terminal have been complaining that NJ Transit workers have been making it harder for them to spend time at night getting warm there. The workers have been locking the bathrooms - even for commuters - at 11 p.m., and have been locking the waiting room completely at 1 a.m., even though the last train leaves at 1:45 a.m. People waiting for that train have to do so outside.

NJ Transit spokeswoman Anna Farenski confirmed the earlier closing of the bathrooms last week, saying it was done to give workers more time to clean them. As for the waiting room closings, she said that they haven't changed, and she mentioned the sign outside the terminal. The sign states that the waiting rooms are to be locked from 1:30 a.m. to 5 a.m. on weekdays and from 12:30 a.m. to 6 a.m. on weekends.

As for NJ Transit's policy regarding the homeless, Farenski said the NJ Transit police are trained to ask someone who appears to be homeless whether that person needs shelter, and to help that person get shelter or medical attention. She balked at saying whether there is any company policy about whether the homeless must be either allowed to stay or told to leave. Apparently, the power to make that decision is in the hands of individual transit police officers.

"You're using the word 'force,'" Farenski said, in response to a question on whether there's a specific policy about forcing the homeless out. "Railroad terminals are not designed to serve as temporary shelters for people. It's not appropriate, it's not safe. The property is owned by NJ Transit...and we need to manage the property so that everyone who uses them is safe."

Some homeless people in the train station told stories recently of transit police kindly letting them stay for long periods while it was cold, but others claimed that some of the workers are not humane enough, and that they have been verbally or, on occasion, physically abusive.

"To some people," commented "John," a 70-something homeless man waiting in the station, "we're just sh-t under their shoe."

Friday night

In response to the complaints, I spent Friday evening, March 9, in the train terminal in Hoboken. Waiting a few hours for a train can be irksome. How is it for people who, because of physical illness, borderline mental illness, addiction, poverty or just plain bad luck, have no alternative but to spend 12 hours or more there?

Janis, who is in her fifties and has no family, told me that she became unable to work two years ago after suffering from the Epstein-Barr "sleeping virus" for years. She used to be a social worker. She said it is hard for people to understand what she goes through. Recently, she said, a friend of hers who works at the Hoboken terminal - and who often gave her what she considered to be simplistic advice about her situation - told her he would "rough it" with her one night and sleep on the floor. He lasted two hours, she said. Then he left.

Hour by hour

That Friday night, it's about 9 p.m. when I arrive in the terminal. I find Janis and another homeless woman in the bathroom freshening up. In the past, Janis has told me that her hygiene and appearance are all she has, and it's important for people to know that she's different from an addicted or mentally ill person who might have trouble with cleanliness.

A paper sign on the bathroom door says, "Restrooms will be closed at 11:00 p.m. Please use restrooms on the trains."

"They did that because they do not want the homeless in here," Janis tells me. "They're even willing to forfeit a commuter getting angry." She adds, "They think it's not fair for commuters to pay all this money and still have to look at us. But between 1:45 a.m. and 6 a.m., there are no commuters."

NJ Transit's Farenski said the reason for the overnight closures of the terminal and the restrooms is to allow workers to clean them.

Janis says that she used to secretly sleep in a spot in the station, but she often was kicked out in the wee hours of the morning by police, who sometimes used harsh language. Lately, with the locking of doors at 1 a.m., it has been harder to get back into the terminal.

"There was the 7 [a.m.] to 3 shift [of transit cops], a 3 to 11, and then you actually had a gap, and then a 12 to 6," she says. "Until the last three weeks, they've been coming in at 1:30 [a.m.] We had a certain cop who would rant and rave and yell, 'Out, out, out,' but wouldn't check the doors. Now, the new cops graduating from the academy, when they say 'Get out,' they mean it."

Janis tells me that someone once told her that there's a state law that says homeless people can't be kicked out of public buildings if the temperature is lower than 38 degrees. However, such a law apparently does not exist, as local legislators and officials in Trenton couldn't find it.

'I have two girlfriends'

Janis and I talk about the various conditions at homeless shelters that make some homeless people not want to stay at them. There's a litany of reasons, including the fact that the guests all sleep in one room, and sometimes bring their illnesses and problems in there with them. (See sidebar, "Why the homeless don't always like shelters," at end of story.) In any case, the shelters are sometimes full.

At 9:40 p.m., a man in a green pullover hat, with salt-and-pepper stubble and gray hair, staggers over and shakily says to Janis and me, "I don't remember this girl. I'm Tommy." He shakes my hand and I tell him my first name. He sits down next to me. "You look like an Irish girl," he says. Then he adds, again, "I'm Tommy."

As Janis and I talk, Tommy keeps peeking at my notebook. He slurs, "Are you writing a letter, or are you busy?"

Janis tries to talk to me, but Tommy vies for my attention

Janis: When I say to the [transit police], 'You can't kick us all out into the cold,' they say, 'We're not. You can go to a shelter.' So that's how shelters create more of a problem.

Tommy: Fancy, flowery words. Can't beat you, Caren. Finish your thesis and let's get busy.

Janis: The Hoboken terminal is a public place. It's owned by the state.

Tommy: It's not just you. I have two girlfriends.

Janis: Once, the police were asking someone I know to leave, and he said, 'Well, what if I do want to go to a shelter? They're full.' It's ludicrous not to let people stay from 1:45 [a.m.] to 6. You wind up with sleep-deprived people who are going to come back in at 6 to sleep, anyway.

Tommy: Listen. We're not all alone.

Janis: You see an old lady like Susan with white hair. Let her sleep here.

Tommy: We're stuck here, so here we are. But it's a good way to camp. What are you, crazy? It's freezing cold and we got nowhere to sleep.

Tommy dangles a mitten in front of my face to get my attention, like yarn in front of a cat.

Janis: To tell you the truth, I think [NJ Transit is] ambivalent. Otherwise, we would have been bye-bye by now. Why not have a mini-outreach program to help people get from point A to B?

I point out to Janis that the outreach coordinators might just recommend courses of action that the homeless people in the terminal have already rejected. I ask Janis why she hasn't applied for low-income housing, and she says she's heard the wait lists are years long (true). I ask why she hasn't taken advantage of various programs to get her back on her feet, and she says that when she went to one agency, they told her they only helped senior citizens and AIDS patients. She said she's looked for jobs, but hasn't been able to get one.

For some, though, the reasons may be more complex than that. People who seem, at first, able-bodied and mentally healthy might not be that way all the time. A while ago, a homeless person at the terminal who's a good writer told me that she had an idea for a freelance story, and I said we might be able to pay her. But in the end, she balked. She didn't want to give me her Social Security number. She said she couldn't tell me why. In her mind, I'm sure, she had good reasons.

Tommy gets the boot

Around 10 p.m., there are a dozen homeless people in various states of slumpery on the benches. Janis says that they have to sleep sitting up; otherwise a police officer will wake them.

At 10:10 p.m., the shorthaired police officer comes over and talks to Tommy. While talking, the officer pulls on his sharp black gloves.

"Get up and get out," the officer says.

"I'm not doing anything," Tommy says.

"Get up," the officer says, "I don't want to put my hands on you."

Tommy stands up, then looks at me.

"Escort." He smiles. "Free escort."

The officer and Tommy head to the third row, where the rest of the homeless people hang out, to talk. Janis and I try to figure out why the officer has kicked out Tommy and no one else. We don't know. Janis thinks that maybe the officer didn't know who I was and wanted to remove Tommy from my presence. Or maybe it was because Tommy was in the second row and not with the standard "third row homeless people," Janis says.

Tommy leaves the terminal and doesn't come back.

I ask Janis what the real solution is, since train terminals aren't shelters and the homeless don't like the shelters that are set up for them.

"Maybe if you found eight landlords with a little bit of compassion and a little bit of heart," Janis says. "They might say, 'We've got our 60 units, we have our exorbitant rent, we've made our millions.' They don't have to give apartments to drug addicts, but maybe give one to Susan [an elderly white-haired woman], who'd be so happy to have a place."

Actually, as of five years ago, 37 percent of Hoboken's apartments were units that were designated affordable housing when they were built. But that doesn't mean that low-income people are benefiting from them. Since the 1960s and 1970s, when those units were built, many of their tenants began to make more money. Now, those tenants don't really need to stay in affordable housing - but they also don't have to leave to make room for new residents who do need it. So there isn't much turnover, and the wait lists for the apartments remain long.

All is not hopeless, however. Apartments sometimes open up at Marine View Plaza and in the senior citizens' buildings. And there will be new affordable housing in the next few years in two developments planned for the northwest corner of town. A developer of a 477-unit complex called "Village West" at Eight and Monroe streets has promised that approximately 47 of the units will be affordable housing, and an unnamed 894-unit development in that area is slated to have more than 200 affordable units.

Janis says that Susan, a white-haired, bent-over homeless woman who frequents the station, loves to look at photos of houses in the newspaper and fantasize. Sometimes, the other homeless people bring her the newspaper so that she can do so.

"She says, 'I'd just like to have a little apartment and go into it and I'd go in the kitchen,'" Janis says. "She says, 'You wouldn't see me in a while, but I'd come back.' Like the way some people fantasize about the Bahamas. She says, 'Maybe I'd cook. I'm a good cook.'"

Brief relief

When the shorthaired police officer who kicked Tommy out steps out of the waiting room around 10:30 p.m., I feel very relieved. I tell Janis so. She smiles. "Isn't that interesting," she says.

But when I ask her if she's glad, too, she says, "No. Because I don't know what we're getting in his place." That officer is nice sometimes, she says.

In fact, she does have some friends among the transit workers and officers, and throughout the night, they smile and greet her by name.

"They are the nicest people," Janis says of one particular group. "They're concerned about my safety and worried about me."

10:45 p.m. - Amy and John

"We're probably going to find out what goes on tonight in the next 10 minutes," Janis tells me.

Around 10:45 p.m., I notice that I can't see the heads of any of the homeless people in the third row. At first, I think that maybe they were scared off. But I stand up and see that they're sleeping.

I head over and talk to a man in his 70s who has his arm around a long-haired woman in her 50s or 60s. For many years, the woman had spent a lot of time with a different homeless man. The two of them could be spotted together around Hoboken, often on Newark Street. But that man died last year after a long bout with alcoholism.

The man in his 70s doesn't want to give his name. I'll call him "John." (Most of the names in this article have been changed upon request). "John" grew up in Hoboken. When I ask him how he became homeless, he complains about the Yuppies and condos and high rents. But when asked if he became homeless because his rent got too high, he admits that that wasn't why. The high rents, though, may be the reason he stays that way.

"Homelessness can happen to anyone," he says. "I'm homeless, not hopeless."

He says he's on housing waiting lists. He also gets a Social Security check, which he can use to stay in motels for about half of the month.

His friend Amy gripes, "The rates go up and down."

John adds, "Let me elucidate. The hotels are $45 during the week. On weekends, they're $85. They jack them up because of the hookers."

I return to my seat and report this to Janis. "He's right," she says. Janis, too, stays in motels when she can raise enough money panhandling, but she goes the ones that are more than an hour away because they're much cheaper than around here.

Other options for the homeless are to spend all night on the PATH trains, which run 24 hours between Jersey City and New York, or to find a spot outside. If they find a good, safe spot, they don't want anyone to know where it is.

I also give Janis Amy's news about the homeless man who died. Earlier in the evening, when I had asked Janis if she'd seen him around lately, she had told me that she had heard that he'd been in a coma for months. Now we knew the truth. Also, at some point in the evening, Janis tells me about her friend Linda, whom she hasn't seen at the train station in a while. Janis isn't sure where Linda went. A few days later, I happen to find out that Linda was recently diagnosed with ovarian cancer, allegedly after six months of misdiagnoses. Now, Linda is staying with a relative in North Bergen and goes for chemotherapy every three weeks.

NJ Transit takes it on the chops

As Janis and I talk, John, the 70something man, comes over to me. "Read the paper!" he demands, apparently apropos of nothing.

"What paper?" I ask.

"Any paper," he says. "[NJ Transit] is so worried about the homeless, they forgot to report 92 accidents." Then he storms off.

A few minutes later, he comes back and thrusts that day's Newark Star-Ledger into my hands.

The headline reads, FEDS SAY NJ TRANSIT KEPT QUIET ON MISHAPS.

The text: "NJ Transit failed to alert federal authorities to dozens of accidents ...in 2000, violations that could result in fines as high as $297,000, the Federal Railroad Administration determined today. The 91 violations, which were uncovered during a review ...."

"John is good," Janis says. "He's good."

'We're going to be locking up'

Janis tells me, "One time, one of the workers said to us, 'Do you think we owe you?' No one owes us. But what do they think we can do? We can't jump in the river and disappear."

Around 12 a.m., she stands up. "Let me see if there are police cars outside," she says.

"Somebody's out there with his headlights on, but it's hard to detect."

It occurs to me that I might need to use the bathroom soon. But I can't, as the doors were locked a little after 11 p.m. Janis tells me that when this happens and homeless people need to go at night, some just soil themselves. That's why she won't sit in the third row. Others go outside. Janis says she holds it in, but that it hurts sometimes.

A new homeless person saunters in at 12:35 a.m. "That's Ron," Janis says. She goes over and confers with him, then comes back. "He said that last night, at exactly 1[a.m.] on the dot, they chained the doors and you couldn't get back in." (Janis was in a motel that night, so she missed the action.)

I yawn.

"See how you're getting a little tired?" Janis asks. "Imagine every night, you're just about to go to sleep...it's horrendous."

The shorthaired police officer, whom Janis suspects is now making overtime, comes in with another officer. "I don't recognize that guy," she says. "I don't know what this means."

At 1 a.m., the police start waking up homeless people in the third row. Then, they come over to us. "Hi, Janis," says the shorthaired one. "We're going to be locking up."

As 70something John passes me, he growls, "Put that in your thesis!"

Cold outside

It's 34 degrees out. John, Amy, Janis, a recently-homeless person named Ellen, and I stand on the concrete area next to the trains. John and Amy leave to find secret spots. Janis and Ellen spend the hour from 1 a.m. to 2 a.m. conferring on what they should do.

The night is partially cloudy, partially starry. There's no wind chill. No rain, no snow. But it's 34 degrees. The homeless people who are still hanging out next to the trains don't know where they will go. The tips of my fingers tingle a bit, but I'm not so cold, because I have something to keep me warm that they don't: the knowledge that if I need to, I have a bed to go to. And a toilet, which is weighing increasingly on my mind. A young commuter who is going to take the Dover train to a friend's house tells me that the homeless situation "f---ing sucks." He says that President Bush doesn't understand. Then he laughs about the Clintons getting divorced. He also complains that soon he's going to have to ride home on the train with drunks from Hoboken's bars who will "probably yuke."

"Yuke?" I ask.

"Yeah. All over."

Ellen looks back at the chains that have been put on the waiting room. "What happens if there's a fire in there?" she asks. "They couldn't even get in to put it out."

A group of well dressed young professionals rushes toward the trains at 1:35 a.m. after a night at the bars to catch the 1:45 a.m. to Dover.

"There's too much wealth in this country for this to happen," Ellen says, shaking her head.

I think about some things Janis had told me during the night, like about how she was abandoned at a young age and grew up as an orphan. At 19, she met her best friend, a border collie. The dog lived for 17 years, and Janis still visits his grave three times each year. Even when Janis's illness was at its worst, she says, she made it out there. "He taught me kindness and love," she had told me. "If I have anything good inside of me, it's because of that dog."

Around 2 a.m., Janis figures out where she's going to go, but she doesn't want to tell me and she doesn't want me to draw attention to her by coming along. Ellen goes a different way. I wish them luck. I sit at a cold metal table and wonder what I'd do if I had no place to sleep. There are nooks around the terminal, but they're cold, and it can't be that safe to sleep outside in any circumstance.

I head downstairs into the PATH station, where it's warm but unbearably stenchy. I don't see any of the homeless people from the terminal down there. Earlier in the evening, they had compared notes on what it's like to spend the night in Newark Penn Station or Journal Square, but they said they felt safer in Hoboken. (A week later, Janis will tell me that she finally did spend an evening at Newark Penn Station, and that every time a homeless person slightly slouched over there, a police officer would wake him or her up.)

I spend the next hour walking around. Almost all the people I pass are on their way somewhere - what if you have no idea where you're going to go?

Both Sister Norberta Hunnewinkel, the director of the Hoboken homeless shelter, and Sister Maria Cordis, who runs a Hoboken-based job training program for the homeless, suggested parts of the system that have to improve - like health care, housing, counseling.

But there's the other dilemma for the homeless - the fact that if, in the meantime, they do finally find a warm place where they can sit and feel comfortable for a while, like a train station, they know their fate hinges on whether the people in charge decide to let them alone.

Around 3 a.m., I head home. My stomach tells me more and more that if I don't get to a bathroom in five minutes, it'll be too late. I run for the last block and try my best to think about anything other than the bathroom. I get there just in time.

Sinking and sinking and sinking

On the way home, I think about something Janis had said to me earlier in the night as she observed Ellen, who was sleeping:

"This person over here is recently homeless," she said. "I can tell you right off the bat, if she continues to be in this situation, it will change her. It's like quicksand. For a few seconds, you can jump out. Stay there longer, and you sink and sink and sink. If I was in the position, I'd love to grab this woman by her shoulders and say, 'Look, I have an apartment. I'd like to help you out.'" Why the homeless don't always like shelters

There's a litany of reasons why some homeless people avoid shelters. The shelters close at a set time early in the evening. They "pile people on top of each other," according to Janis and a homeless woman named Ellen. They have harsh rules and kick people out for minor infractions, like cursing. If you've been staying there but you find another place to stay for a day, they won't let you come right back. And worst of all, they say, they are stuck in close quarters with people who have a host of problems.

Ellen, a curly-haired woman in her 30s or 40s who hangs out at the Hoboken train terminal at times, told me two weeks ago that last time she was in the Hoboken Clergy Coalition shelter at Third and Bloomfield streets, she was in a bed next to a woman who was spitting up fluids. Ellen said that she later found out the woman had AIDS.

Sister Norberta Hunnewinkel, director of the Hoboken shelter, said last week that she didn't remember such an incident in particular, but that if someone was doing that, the staff would try to separate that person. "We would take precautions if somebody was sick," Hunnewinkel said. "And we certainly would make use of the hospital if someone was gravely ill or needing medicine."

Hunnewinkel said that she and her staff have been trying to encourage some of the people in the train station to use the shelter, but not all of them want to or can.

"Some want to be free to come and go as they choose," Hunnewinkel said. "Some are just so mentally ill that they can't sit through an interview. They probably won't be able to stay in, they wander so much." The Hoboken shelter runs like this: A homeless person can sign in to stay there for 30 days and can renew that "if they're working on their issues." All 30 men and women who stay there sleep in one room. They must be in by 7 p.m. each night and leave by 7 a.m. Usually, the shelter is full, but there are generally a few beds for people who are homeless in an emergency situation who show up at night. The reason the rules of timing are strict is because if a person doesn't show up, the shelter doesn't want to hold the bed when someone else might need it, Hunnewinkel said.

There are two other homeless shelters in the area, one in Jersey City and one in Union City. Together, all three can hold 150 people in a night.

Another kind of housing

Sister Maria Cordis, a project coordinator for Step by Step, which is a Hoboken- and Jersey City-based job training program for the homeless, said shelters only help in the short term.

"[Homeless people] can't bathe anywhere," Cordis said. "They need a place to live. Then, with all the supportive services, we can help them. You can't do that in settings like shelters. They're asked to leave at a certain time, and where can they go? They go looking for a job, they don't look that presentable. They need a bath. They need clean clothes. Everybody has their comfort zones. People in shelters have no comfort zone."

Step by Step is presently renovating a building on Ege Avenue in Jersey City for use as a transitional house for seven homeless men and women. Supportive services will be provided.

Cordis acknowledged that some people might not be able to fit into any sort of traditional shelter, but she said that supportive services might help them do so.

Where to get shelter

To find out more about the local homeless shelters, call:

Hoboken Clergy Coalition Shelter
Hoboken
Capacity: 30
656-5069

St. Lucy's Shelter
Jersey City
Capacity: 80
656-7201

Palisades Emergency Residence Corp. (PERC)/
St. John's Shelter

(Generally takes men only)
Union City
Capacity: 40
348-8150

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