The Residents of Grand Central
Grand Central was unveiled on February 2, 1913, to a sea of hustling commuters; hundreds of thousands of people racing in different directions under the painted constellations of the terminal’s dark green ceiling. However, the picturesque station began to take on a very different image in the late 1970’s, which became a prominent issue for New York into the 80’s.
The once romantic ideas that appeared in every daydream, where one would arrive in New York to a stunning terminal that ran like clockwork, were now being taken over by crumbling infrastructure and increasingly visible homelessness.
This period saw the rise of new demographics of people on the street. The prominence of harsh realities such as growing income inequality, with an ever-shrinking middle class, and the rapidly developing drug epidemic were practically inescapable. The stereotypical image of the older “town drunk” was replaced by stark images of homeless families and young people. With few alternatives to keep warm and dry, Grand Central became the city’s makeshift shelter, with unimaginable amounts of people spread over the terminal’s floors and benches.
New York did what it could to prevent the homeless from taking over the terminal each night, but typically offered no helping hand to a person’s hardships. Instead, police would resort to arresting the homeless on minor charges, or forcibly move them into the shelters they were desperately trying to avoid due to the terrible conditions, including theft and violence.
Charles, a man who often seeks shelter at Grand Central Terminal, leans against one of the closed ticket counters in the main concourse.
Flash forward to 2018. Virtually nothing has changed. Yes, the terminal has been undergoing
massive renovations, but hustling commuters still race through the station in a breathless panic,
hoping they won’t miss their next train. Awestruck tourists still look up at the same, never-shifting
constellations that glow against the terminal’s stunning green sky. And while Mayor De Blasio
has now implemented a new plan to combat homelessness in New York City, Grand Central still
remains the city's makeshift shelter.
In the food concourse, many homeless individuals find a seat away from the chaos to rest for a few hours, or lean against countertops, trying to blend in. Standing near the ticket counters, one man writes ardently, while three or four others choose to quietly observe the passersby of the terminal. In once crowded hallways, left abandoned by commuters who had caught their train home hours ago, a woman sits, blocking out the rest of the world, while a man sits on a step across from her doing the same.
Since taking office in 2014, Mayor De Blasio has revealed an ambitious four-pillar plan to
combat the issue of homelessness in New York City, addressing its most problematic aspects.
The first pillar, dealing with preventative care, aims to permanently rehouse those currently
in shelters. This, in turn, would help people avoid street homelessness all together. The second
pillar involves a transformation of current New York City homeless services, which has
deteriorated over the last forty years, placing the homeless in haphazard shelters and living
conditions. This is addressed more directly in the third pillar, where De Blasio’s office aims to
end the use of dangerous cluster-site housing. The city, which has paid for homeless families
and individuals to live in these privately owned apartments, aims to end the use of 360 of these
cluster-sites. Instead, they hope to renovate them into permanent affordable housing, while
opening 90 new shelters throughout all five boroughs. The final pillar relates directly to aiding
the street homeless, discussing outreach programs that urge people to use the city’s services.
In a statement provided by Isaac McGinn, Press Secretary for New York City’s Department of Homeless Services, it was said, “Through HOME-STAT, the most comprehensive street homeless outreach program in the nation, our outreach teams canvass the five boroughs 24/7/365 to identify and engage individuals who may be homeless and encourage them to accept services. Through compassionate persistence, those teams have helped 1,500 homeless New Yorkers off the streets citywide since the launch of HOME-STAT in 2016, thanks to new investments and a doubling of the size of those teams. We remain undeterred in our efforts engage clients proactively until we make the connection that will help them transition off the streets. For the most immediate response, New Yorkers who see individuals they believe to be homeless and in need should contact 3-1-1 via phone or mobile app and request outreach assistance.”
In acknowledging the ambition of their intentions and the necessity of their ideas, it is also important to acknowledge the shortcomings that their plans have suffered since being introduced into practice. The city has only opened 10 of the 20 shelters they were supposed to last year, and is currently showing little sign of improvement. The city is also determined to work on the issue of affordable housing; however, rents have increased 18.4% between 2005 and 2015, while the average income of those in the city only rose 4.8% over the same period. Additionally, New York City has an incredibly low vacancy rate to begin with, and those in need of an apartment costing 800 dollars or less must search within a market that has only a 1.15% vacancy rate.
In a market with very little affordable availability, it is no surprise that many New Yorkers are subsequently forced to choose between living on the street and turning to the New York shelter system, which has a tumultuous history of its own.
According to an unnamed MTA officer who works at Grand Central, “The shelters are horrendous. But that’s on the city. They’re dirty, people get robbed, people are violent. No one wants to go there.”
That’s why so many people choose to take their chances at Grand Central. One of the familiar faces of the terminal is an older gentleman named Tuck. A graduate of the University of Virginia, he has been a resident of Grand Central for approximately three years. As tensions between roommates grew and rent prices continued to rise, his roommates moved out before he eventually had to give the place up. An only child with no family left and severe vision problems, he has stated that Grand Central was, “the best case scenario for a worst case situation.”
In the terminal’s centennial year, homelessness began to make headlines again, with an unprecedented number of people once again seeking shelter there each night. During this time, many of the regulars staying in the station would learn which officers would let them stay, and which ones would kick them out the minute they made eye contact. There was an understanding with many of them, for there were generally no disruptions. It was easy to mistake the sleeping homeless person for the displaced traveller.
Around two o’clock in the morning, officers would still have to make their rounds, clearing the station out for the brief period it closes down every night. During this time, the homeless would have to gather their belongings and go walk, or possibly find another place to sit and rest until the station reopened around five.
This period of limbo could prove exceptionally difficult for those who rely on Grand Central for a safe, secure place to sit each night. Giencay, a woman who consistently seeks shelter at Grand Central, opened up about her experiences on the street, and some of the dangers she has been confronted with. She explained that in warmer weather, she would try to rest outside, where she would not meet the wake-up call of an MTA officer pushing her out of the terminal. Outside, she would sleep in the same spot every night, with a suitcase of her belongings at her side, until one night someone took off with it all. Though she now has two smaller backpacks of regained possessions, she can recall a handful of times that people have tried to take off with those before others stepped in and helped her. She now makes sure to sleep on at least one of them each night, as a way to ensure she will always have something.
Giencay applies lipstick in the food concourse.
While Grand Central is still a public space, being indoors offers some sense of security to those whose only alternative is braving the streets. However, within the last year, the city has been getting stricter. A quiet resting place is no longer an acceptable request, it is reason enough for an arrest to be made.
Officers now close off the homeless hotspots early; the food concourse is roped off at 11:15, and hallways remain heavily monitored at earlier hours. Barricades are piled in the spot Diane used to knit hats and scarves to sell to impressed tourists. Giencay no longer sits in the hallway leading to Lexington Avenue; she now heads downstairs, leaning against one of the countertops in the food concourse, trying to blend in. Tuck, who would always stand at the subway entrance and pass out contact information in an attempt to find a job, now says that officers no longer give warnings; "once they see you, you’re done”.
Police stand in a cleared out food concourse to ensure nobody else makes their way down there.
Diane, who would often seek shelter in Grand Central with her cat Buttercup, is an artist who is working to open her own cafe, where she can permanently display her work.
Looking to stay out of trouble, Tuck now tries to steer clear of the area he once stood passing out contact information.
Many of the homeless individuals in the terminal have noticed this shift in policing. The previously mentioned unnamed officer was able to provide insight into some of the basic procedures that MTA Police have to follow within Grand Central. They stated that, because it is a public space, the homeless are allowed to be inside the terminal; however, they cannot be laying on the floor, taking up seats in the dining concourse that are meant for paying customers, they cannot be intoxicated, or panhandling.
According to this officer, if an individual is caught in any of these situations, the MTA Police will write them a court summons, but it does not typically amount to an immediate arrest. An arrest would only be made if they do not show up to their court date. However, if an officer finds an existing court summons while running the individual’s name, they are taken in on the spot.
Once they are arrested, it is out of the MTA officer’s control. The individual could be released by the end of that night’s shift, or it could take up to a few days; it is completely dependent on their case, and left to the courts to decide. Because the time frame can vary so widely, the police throw away any perishables, meaning any food that passersby had given the homeless individual will immediately be disposed of, regardless of the timeframe they are actually held.
The MTA Officer did make it a point to say that they are truly just there to help people. Their first response is always to direct them to the BRC, a homeless outreach program at Grand Central that tries to set people up in permanent housing situations.
Unfortunately, this goal has not always been clear to the homeless, nor to those looking on. Dating back to 2015, an NYPD union initiated a project titled Peek-a-Boo, We See You Too, which urged off-duty police officers to photograph the homeless and post their images to Flickr. In a comment to New York Magazine, PBA official Bob Ganley stated, “We’re hoping to hold members of the City Council and other politicians accountable, just as we are. Whenever there’s a police encounter you have almost every citizen taking out a cell phone and videoing it and it goes live on every news media that there is. You can’t have aggressive panhandling going on in the City of New York, the amount of homeless people that are begging on the streets of the city, people urinating and defecating in places that they shouldn’t be. It’s not fair to the people that we represent, people that we serve.”
While it is unclear if this specific project is still in practice, an officer in Grand Central was recently observed aggressively instructing a homeless man to look up and direct his face to the officer’s cell phone camera. The officer promptly walked away, and the MTA Police declined to comment directly on the matter. However, in asking another officer what potential motives could lie behind this type of action, their only comment was, “We don’t do anything we’re not given direct orders to do. I’ve never heard of that program; I don’t know if it’s NYPD or not. It could be that they match the description of someone who is wanted, or they’re running some sort of background on them.”
“Field photographs” are legal in public settings; however, it is unclear what exactly these photographs are used for, and where they are stored. Though it is not required for an individual to show their face if they are not being charged with a crime, there is very little a homeless person could do to object to an officer when they are simply trying to stay out of trouble and rest for a night.
The fight against homelessness has not been left to the city alone. Several outreach groups, including the Coalition for the Homeless, the BRC, and the Grand Central Partnership have made valiant efforts to minimize the detrimental effects of homelessness in New York City. The BRC, with offices directly inside Grand Central, was created in 1971 to establish a dialogue with New York City’s street homeless, in an effort to get them into permanent housing situations.
The Grand Central Partnership, although focused on the greater Grand Central neighborhood, has also stated that their organization has established a daily dialogue with the homeless community, where they urge the homeless to make use of the city’s shelters.
However, when asked to discuss their interaction with the homeless, a Partnership employee stated, “We don’t deal with the homeless. We just patrol Lexington Avenue. That’s all.”
This was contrary to information on their website, as well as an interaction that was observed between another Partnership employee and a homeless man in Grand Central just a couple nights prior. When asked to clarify the situation in a statement, the Grand Central Partnership declined to comment.
This was not an uncommon occurrence. In fact, many requests for the most basic information, including typical protocol, general rules, and outlines of what steps are being taken, were met with either no response or a decline to comment. It was only after countless phone calls and emails that some organizations responded, with statements that often repeated the information that already exists online. These official statements were often contradictory, both to themselves and to the minimal information provided by individuals working in the field. Both seem to be contradictory to the actual actions being taken.
There appears to be a lack of accountability when it comes to dealing with the issue of homelessness, for many people are unaware and unable to initiate a basic dialogue with those most involved in trying to change it. It is one of the city’s most visible issues, and seemingly one of their biggest secrets. Until an open dialogue is created for this increasingly pressing topic, Grand Central will continue to function as it has for most of its existence; the city’s makeshift shelter, where its homeless population and the police alike are put in situations that neither wants to be in.