The streets of New York feel different since the pandemic struck. And it’s not just the number of closed businesses.
Homeless people are far more noticeable. People who used to flock to the city to work are now toiling from home. Broadway is dark and tourism is practically non-existent. That means, our homeless population is not only more apparent. There are fewer people for the homeless to ask for handouts.
Also, many people living on the streets aren’t just homeless. They’re also emotionally disturbed.
All of this is contributing to a dangerous situation.
Every morning in the predawn hours I make my way to Penn Station for the train ride home to New Jersey. At that hour, there are far more homeless people in the station than there are passengers waiting for their trains to be called. And many of them are obviously mentally ill.
Many stalk the corridors muttering to themselves. Others shout, either at real people or people imagined.
Some are violent. I’ve seen fights between homeless people. And homeless folks ‘’boxing” someone only they can see.
Sometimes I see homeless people pounding their fists on the walls.
Not all are aggressive. But many are. Both in Penn Station and on the sidewalks of the streets and avenues that border the train station. My colleagues who take the bus to work say their experience at the Port Authority bus terminal mirrors mine at Penn Station.
Those of us who wait for our trains to be called every morning are used to it. But people who are there for the first time since the pandemic, many of them to catch a convenient train ride to Newark Airport, are often frightened.
There are two police departments with bases inside Penn Station. The MTA’s on guard on the north half of the station served by the Long Island Railroad. Amtrak police are responsible for the south section where Amtrak and New Jersey Transit trains stop. There’s an obvious difference in the number of officers assigned. MTA cops are seemingly omnipresent. Amtrak cops are on the constant move in order to keep up with the problem. They make homeless people sleeping on stairs move. And those who are particularly disruptive are escorted out a door where they potentially become a problem for the NYPD. But it’s a cat and mouse game because there just aren’t enough Amtrak cops assigned to the station to deal with the overwhelming problem.
I’ve been thinking for months about our society’s seeming inability to address mental illness. But I finally decided to write about it after the shooting massacre in Boulder.
We always try to search for a motive when something like this happens. Then there are the inevitable arguments about gun control. But no matter the motive, it’s pretty clear that anyone who would take the lives of so many innocent people is mentally ill.
So how does all this contribute to my gaining weight?
It’s a one-mile walk from Penn Station to work. I used to walk to work and back to the train every day. Two miles of brisk walking may not seem like much. But it kept my waistline in check.
But now, I’m afraid to walk that mile. I was never concerned before the pandemic. But now the chance that I might be accosted by someone who is down, out and desperate is a real concern.
Assaults in Midtown Manhattan, once pretty rare, are now commonplace. People use fists. Bottles. Knives. And sometimes guns. Just the other day, at Sixth Avenue and 45th Street, someone was hit by a stray bullet. That intersection is along my route to and from work.
So instead, I Uber between Penn Station and work. And when I go to Penn Station in the morning, I always have some fruit or some protein bars so I have something to offer anyone who asks for money. In most cases, the gesture is gratefully accepted. Sometimes a person will demand money instead. That causes me to speculate about what they’d do with the money had I given it to them.
A colleague used to give money when asked. Until a man he offered a dollar rejected it and demanded five.
I recognize homelessness and mental health are national issues. But there are things local governments can do to mitigate the problem. It seems those efforts are falling short in New York City.
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s wife was put in charge of a program to help the city’s mentally ill. She’s been accused of wasting the money she’d been budgeted. A staggering $1.8 billion.
I, of course, can’t speak to how other communities are dealing with these twin and intertwined issues. But when it comes to New York, well, de Blasio is termed out and an election to replace him will be held this fall. The new mayor will be facing seemingly insurmountable problems. He or she will have to deal with rising crime, a fleeing population, closed businesses, a tourism industry on the ropes, declining tax revenues and the probability of having to cut services to make ends meet.
But the conjoined problems of homelessness and mental illness need to be addressed too. If they are not, the quality of life for all of us will be permanently ill affected. More importantly these unfortunate souls will be forced to continue to aimlessly wander our streets, subways and train and bus stations. If that happens, history will judge us poorly.
Originally published at https://garybaumgarten.substack.com.