: The New York Post and The New York Times editorial pages almost agree that the homless should not be making the New York subway their home after a fire apparently started by one of them caused damage and disruption that will take months or even years to fix. The Post started it in an editorial:

Let’s face it: Some subway-station bum starts a fire, probably to warm his tootsies, and subway riders suffer for years.

He’s culpable, of course, even if he is crazy as a loon.

But blame for this fiasco also must accrue to those who have made the notion that “homelessness” is just an “alternative lifestyle” into public policy

  • I was homeless for two different periods of time in my young life. The first time I was able to stay in a squat, the other time I chose to sleep on the subway. It was the safest place I knew to go to.
    I didn’t look homeless, I had a job, and bathed at work each morning before people arrived, but I was. And it was in the middle of winter. I was young and didn’t know how or who to ask for help. I met quite a few others out there and certainly, mental illness was a contributing factor in many of their situations. Not all though. For some it was sudden circumstances and ignorance. For some, it was a choice.

  • Now let’s do something about it.
    and where do you propose that the money comes from?

  • slim999

    Hmmmmm …. quite progressive these editorials.
    One wonders, however, whether the government officials responsible for the New York subway system have any concept of the notion of fault tolerance.
    Let’s examine the “facts”:
    1 homeless guy starts
    1 small fire to warm
    2 small “tootsies”
    And the result is YEARS of lost subway service? And it’s the bum’s fault???
    We can argue about the homeless if you want. Clearly, the New York Post thinks homeless people are just “bum(s)” who light fires to warm their “tootsies” not withstanding that the day this happened was one of the coldest of the year and the day after the largest Northeastern blizzard in recent memory.
    This is more about how our critical infrastructure is being managed than about one – well I suspect the Times and Post would just tag him a “bumsickle.”
    And bloggers are taking the government and MSM line well … hook, line and sinker. What fish.
    Wonder if any terrorists are getting hints about how easy it is to shut down New York’s transit system?
    No need for massive Ryder trucks filled with gasoline and trackable fertilizer. All you need is a Bic lighter and the wisdom of a “bum.”

  • This has nothing to do with the homeless and everything to do with poor security and poor technical infrastructure by the MTA.
    That said, for the Post to suggest that the city’s homeless should be placed on Rikers Island to keep warm is (excuse the pun) criminal.
    Further, throughout all such stories, it is no surprise that the writers/editors ignore the structural issues as to perhaps why this person might have been homeless in the first place.

  • “a bunch of them attacked my car one night and tried to drag me out of it, sending my wife into premature labor. ”
    Holy shit. Jeff, you have too many scary stories for one life.
    I would love to see the homeless (and the performers and panhandlers) off the subways. (Except maybe for the doo-wop and conjunto groups, but YMMV.) But I agree with previous posts that if one small fire can set the MTA back 2 years, something needs to be fixed at the MTA. If a junction box is that crucial, why no fire alarms rigged to it?
    I too thought about how easily terrorists could cripple our system without any anthrax or dirty bomb. (Are we sure this was a bum trying to keep warm?)

  • Lisa

    How long it takes the MTA to fix the damage is an entirely separate question from de-institutionalization. The homeless man set a fire in a subway. Hundreds or even thousands of people could have been killed in a subway tunnel fire, including the firebug himself,and it was only by luck or the grace of God that they weren’t. I recall a study perhaps 5-7 years ago (sorry, no link) that indicated that some 70 percent of homeless men (I think they didn’t survey homeless women) had either mental illness or substance abuse problems. Letting them “choose” to live on the streets — or giving them $395 in CASH every month like San Francisco does — isn’t compassion, it’s just a way for liberals to feel good about themselves.

  • Jos Bleau

    I’ve spent over 200 Saturday nights in the last 10 years volunteering at my local homeless shelter and I think part of the problem is that different people are homeless for different reasons.
    I see approximately 4 populations:
    (A) Recent releasees from prison (ex-offenders)
    (B) Substance abusers – those on the way down AND in recovery
    (C) People with mental illness/personality disorders
    (D) “Regular” people who have fallen on hard times and don’t have social safety nets
    But there’s a lot of people who fit into mutliple categories, especially the ex-offender. No one solution or even group of solutions will do.
    The shelter where I volunteer does a good job of offering programs and services, but ultimately, there are some people who can’t or don’t want to change their lives.
    What to do about them I haven’t a clue.

  • aba

    Yes, “One Flew . . .” may be one source of distrust regarding the beneficence of mental health institutions; another may just be the series of exposes in recent years by the NYT concerning the abominable conditions and overcrowding of New York State’s actual mental health hospitals and living facilities.

  • Richard Aubrey

    Some years ago, Mayor Koch sent out cops and buses to pick up the homeless and take them to shelters during a couple of particularly frigid weeks.
    “Advocates” for the homeless followed the enterprise, yelling at these poor, confused folks “You don’t have to go. You don’t have to go.”
    And before that, some moron of a shrink proclaimed schizophrenia a lifestyle choice. The tenor of the times–do your own thing–was such that his message was received as gospel.
    Hard to imagine how many people have been damaged by such thinking.

  • it’s just a way for liberals to feel good about themselves.
    Nice, Lisa. Instead of using your comment to try to actually address the homeless problem, you use it as a way to bash liberals.

  • Reggie

    A really good book on the landscape of homelessness in relation to public space, and state policy is The Right to the City, by Don Mitchell. I object to those who claim that criminalizing the homeless and mentally ill is the path to a safer city (a la Jeff and Guiliani). It postpones dealing with the structural problem. It just so happens that after serving time for being ‘private’ in a public space, there is little to no reintegration assistance given to newly released prisoners. The comment above about locating the funding for these programs also really gets at the point. Deinstitutionalization is code for devolution, and as the money is taken away from the state, the first things to go are programs like these that don’t make money. Anyone else notice the lack of low income housing in NYC (everywhere actually–I lived in Iowa and they had a lack of lower income housing also)? How about the 10 year (now closed) waiting list for housing vouchers? Most of those people waiting for housing assistance are not “welfare moms” like they are labelled, but rather, they are employed with one or more jobs. We have successfully demonized the poor so that we can further build an ownership society that is plainly unfair. And then we can complain about the result when the structural flaws inconvenience us. I agree that the subways should be made safer for reasons of security and also for the personal safety of the homeless and riders alike. However, lets not fall back into using a rhetoric that further criminalizes poverty and homelessness. Lets actually address the structure here. It’s for our own good.

  • It’s hard to believe that the current system is providing the best assistance for the homeless for the money spent. If nothing else, the “down on their luck” would probably be supported quite well in depopulating areas on the plains, working to care for the mentally ill who would also do better institutionalized in a low cost jurisdiction than in and out of shelters in high cost urban areas. Heck, there are depopulating portions of NYS that would fit the bill pretty well too.
    Can you get a better solution for the same money? You bet you can.

  • Knucklehead

    Hmmm… This event has highlighted at least problems. As slim999 pointed out, while a “bum” may be the perp, the fact that the MTA’s security and fault-tolerance are so weak, or non-existent, that a bum can do so much damage so “easily” points out a problem with the MTA. If a bum could do this accidentally then surely an arsonist, terrorist, or run-of-the-mill sicko could do it intentionally.
    The fact that there are “bums” living in the NYC subway tunnels is another matter. I certainly don’t know the list of contributing causes for this or the list of potential solutions that would mitigate or elimate this problem. As far as I recall, however, de-institutionalization began in the mid to late 70s and was largely “accomplished” by the mid to late 80s. Perhaps somebody who paid more attention to the political, human-rights, and government budget arguments of those times could explain how this situation came about.

  • I say that One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is as much at fault as any politician
    What kind of crazy talk is this, Jeff? When was the last time you were commited to a mental institution?
    Most of them are not bad at all. I’m sure the ones where New Yorkers with health insurance go are OK. But there are still abuses going on right now, including the State of New York. Crazy people have very limited rights, you know. And, in case your own nuthouse experience was fun, I’ll tell you a secret: for most people it isn’t. It is a friggin frightening institution, but for crying out loud, it’s not any movies fault. The institution is frightening is because insanity is frightening. Have you ever seen people who spend their lives in those institutions? It’s probably more frightening than anything you’ve ever seen, so please, don’t blame the messanger.
    And since everybody’s playing a blame game, I second slim999. MTA is run in such a lousy way, it makes the Soviet Union look decent. MTA management doesn’t seem to have any sense of responsibility. They can hardly get fired, let alone sued and put in prison for wasting millions of people time, and millions of dollars of money. Instead of arguing whether we should put all the bums in Rykers or in a nut house, maybe we should do something about people who waste our tax money?

  • Franky

    So, many mental institutions were in a terrible state in the 1960s and 1970s. A book, and then a movie, draws attention to this, and now they’re to be blamed for current problems with the mentally ill? Allocate blame equally between the message and messenger?

  • In this liberal outpost of Asheville, NC, we’re taking a progressive approach to the homeless – Give Them Homes .
    Turns out it’s cheaper and likely more effective in the long term.

  • annette

    this fire is a security issue. riding subways should not put your life at risk–their systems need to be updated, monitored, and safe. the civic government of nyc has to quit ignoring a deadly danger to citizens. sane or crazy, no one has the right to take innocent lives. like the nasa administrator said to his people, trying to recover apollo 13, “work the problem, people.”

  • Mike K

    ” I recall a study perhaps 5-7 years ago (sorry, no link) that indicated that some 70 percent of homeless men (I think they didn’t survey homeless women) had either mental illness or substance abuse problems. Letting them “choose” to live on the streets — or giving them $395 in CASH every month like San Francisco does — isn’t compassion, it’s just a way for liberals to feel good about themselves.”
    It’s interesting to see the angst about this problem. I teach medical students and take the first year students to the downtown homeless shelters in LA every year. They talk to the directors and learn just how inaccurate most of the myths are. In LA, 60% of the homeless are psychotic and 60% are drug and alcohol addicts. That’s more than 100% you say. Right. Half of each group is both. That leaves about 10% who are the “situational homeless” like the poster above who slept on the subway. The shelters have hundreds and thousands living there and some are even working, commuting to work.
    The biggest piece of the problem is the deinstitutionalization mentioned above. A lot of that came from the invention of the anti-psychotic drugs in the 1950s. Suddenly there was a “cure”. Except crazy people won’t take them and “homeless advocates” tell them they don’t have to.
    We need to change the laws but it will take a sea change in public opinion to do it. Maybe a subway fire that kills 1,000 commuters would do it.

  • Oh yes, let’s go back to the days when you could toss someone in an institution and there was nothing they could do about it — good for getting rid of all sorts of undesirables. Lets go back to the days when the gentle arms of shrinkology offered unwilling victims treatments like frontal lobotomies, Electro-Convulsive Therapy, and whatever experimental drug of the moment happens to be handy. Yes, do let’s go back to those wonderful days.

  • John Thacker

    Deinstitutionalization is a really, really tricky issue. It’s hard to beat the horror of being locked up (esp. against your will) and being unable to get out. OTOH, there are really, really crazy people who need help that they just don’t get. Choosing the right line to draw is difficult, because you know that there will be heart-rending, awful cases no matter what policy is adopted. We just have to minimize the problems and find the best way to deal with it.

  • GSH

    Well, I suppose housing is all well and good–but what then? Is someone going to monitor the people who have been given homes to make sure they’re maintaining decent levels of cleanliness and haven’t turned the house into a squat? Is someone going to check and make sure that they are actively seeking to get a job, get treatment, etc? Or can they just live in the house endlessly? At some point, a swift kick of reality and responsibility (get a job, get off drugs, take your meds, etc.) has to be administered.

  • paul a’barge

    The “let the loonies out of the nut shacks” legacy is, … wait for it … directly the responsibility of the LIBERALS.
    If you study the history of this, you’ll clearly see the LIBERALS shoving the system to shut down the nut shacks and let the loonies run the streets free to do whatever, including light fires in the subways.
    You folks asked for it. Now you got it. And Now you don’t like it. Too f’ing bad.
    You can travel from San Fran to NYC to Austin, TX to see what I mean.
    Now you want to lump them back into the nut shacks.
    Hey. OK with the rest of us. Y’all wanted them overrunning you strets in the first place.

  • JTHC

    **Oh yes, let’s go back to the days when you could toss someone in an institution and there was nothing they could do about it — good for getting rid of all sorts of undesirables. Lets go back to the days when the gentle arms of shrinkology offered unwilling victims treatments like frontal lobotomies, Electro-Convulsive Therapy, and whatever experimental drug of the moment happens to be handy. Yes, do let’s go back to those wonderful days.
    As opposed to the current situation, walking around in rags, begging, and freezing to death on cold nights? It’s a horrible choice to make, but I think it needs to be made because many of these homeless cannot make a rational choice for themselves. Sure, there are the people who have merely fallen on hard times, but we don’t have to worry about them so much because they’re rational and will accept help that is offered. The ones who are mentally unstable, dare I say it, need help forced upon them. Better an institution than frozen to death, starving and smelling of excrement.

  • randee

    I know this isn’t the route for everybody, but just a quick story: I was on one of those Freecycle lists and got an email from someone who wanted an old file cabinet of mine. She came up from Brooklyn to get it, and explained it wasn’t for her, it was for this woman she had taken in. She worked part time at a battered women’s shelter, and this woman (and her two children) were out on the streets after she left her husband, with no place to go. So this person who had come to get the file cabinet had checked references and felt secure, and invited the homeless woman and her children to stay with them so she could get on her feet; in the meanwhile she was scrounging to get them furniture and tangible goods for the place they would eventually live.
    Again, I know this isn’t something for everybody — I’m both moved and terrified at the thought myself — but it strikes me that she may be one of the very few people in this city to be able to say she really is doing something about the homeless situation.
    I have sometimes wondered if there couldn’t be some kind of program like this, to match families/people who want to get off the street with “foster” families on a temporary basis. Probably too much legalese or red tape, but it does seem like a notion worth exploring.

  • Doug

    I see this as not an issue of homelessness nor even an issue of shoddy, antiquated subway equipment but of security. Why should anyone other than police officers and authorized MTA personnel be allowed in subway tunnels?
    What if instead of a homeless person wheeling in a shopping cart full of firewood we were talking about a terrorist with a shopping cart full of explosives?
    That our system of caring for the mentally ill and the formally institutionalized needs repair is not the point. Thousands of commuters were not left stranded because someone who belongs in an institution was instead on the street. They were stranded because of a lax security policy that should be of concern to all city residents. Once someone is underneath our city within close proximity to full trains, skyscraper foundations and other critical information, there is no telling what could happen.

  • Randee, I guess because of what I went thru, I decided to try and help two different folks on two different situations. I let them move in my apartment and I attempted to help them get off the street.
    The first was very successful and is deserving of a long post at my site someday. I am so proud of this dude.
    But the second, well, he was getting out of the youth study center and had no where to go. Heroin addict. I took him in on the good word of someone close to me. I tried to help, but in the end we had a fist fight that led to me getting thrown out of my apartment. It was a bad fight. Smashed doorways on the way down the apartment steps. He was still doping. And he was lieing to me about what he was doing. He hadn’t quit. And he bit me. Took a chunk out of my shoulder. I’m lucky he wasn’t infected with HIV or anything else.
    I haven’t attempted it again. I’m not a hero. I’m a wimp.
    However, I think programs like the one you describe offer the best chance at success. People need more than housing. They need mentoring. And an environment which they can learn within.
    There is a group I am a fan of in Philly – Project HOME. They offer similar services in this area and I’d love to see more efforts like theirs in the future.
    But I don’t think they can help the seriously mentally ill. The difference between someone with depression or affective disorders and someone with schizophrenia is huge.

  • Timothy Cooper

    Well, here I go.
    It wasn’t just the liberals who changed the mental health system in the 80’s there were in fact TWO different groups who thought the mass purging of the loony-bins was a great idea.
    Yes, there was some (not much, but some) liberal bleeding-heart type noises about people committed against their will and civil rights concerns, but most of the “let-em-out” movement came from the local level. Why? Money. It was costing a lot of money to care for these people. Money that started to dry up in the early 80’s when the basic political fiction of our era began to take root.
    That fiction? That government is free. That you can have ultra-low taxes, and tons and tons of government services (like locking the non-criminally insane away) without paying for it. The Republicans started it, the Democrats are now parroting it, and until the voting public (of BOTH PARTIES!) starts acting with some maturity, we will all be paying for it.