What’s the most constructive response to unhoused people sleeping on the ‘L’?
In the Reader’s new Best of Chicago issue there’s an entry by staff writer snd homeless advocate Katie Prout titled “Best action to take when an unhoused Chicagoan is sleeping across three seats on the train.” Her answer: “Nothing. Absolutely nothing.”
Aside from a couple of quibbles – the first being that an average-sized adult sleeping across the side-facing benches on the Red Line actually takes up four or five seats – the piece is pretty much on-point.
“Don’t take a picture of someone at their most vulnerable,” Prout writes. “Don’t post it online for the world to see. Don’t tag the CTA in a post of faux-compassion that reveals your panic and discomfort at having to share a public space with someone who is desperately poor. Don’t be a snitch.”
Prout is right that it’s generally inappropriate to shoot photos of unhoused people sleeping on trains and publish them online for everyone to gawk at. Even some Chicago journalists haven’t gotten the memo about that yet.
What an awful piece posting photos of unhoused residents sleeping on the train. It feels dehumanizing and meant to demean their circumstances, rather than call for compassion. https://t.co/MHH5ptE6HH
— Lynda Lopez (@Lyndab08) March 12, 2021
However, Prout’s assertion that people who object to unhoused folks occupying multiple ‘L’ seats simply can’t handle the thought of sharing space with the destitute is a little unfair. Sleeping across seats inconveniences other riders when it’s done on crowded rush-hour trains. And it’s understandable some current and potential CTA customers aren’t interested in sharing a carriage with multiple folks who haven’t had a chance to bathe or change clothes in a long time.
That said, while sleeping across seats technically violates the transit system’s Rules of Conduct (e.g., the ban on “occupying more than one seat by placing objects, shoes or feet on adjoining seats”), it typically doesn’t cause major problems. Most ‘L’ sleeping is done late at night when there are plenty of available spaces, and people sheltering on the train generally don’t cause trouble for anyone else, making it a relatively victimless infraction. Rather, they’re mostly just putting themselves at risk of theft and violence.
That, combined with the fact the ‘L’ is loud, vibrates a lot, and has bumpy seats that are an uncomfortable sleeping surface, makes it clear no one would choose to sleep on a train unless they truly have no better options. Prout notes there are few available beds in Chicago’s shelter system. She adds that many unhoused individuals prefer sleeping on the 24-hour Red and Blue lines to shelters, citing issues with fights, bedbugs, and a prison-like environment at these facilities.
When I posted Prout’s entry on Twitter, it sparked a fair amount of debate. “I’d like for us, the riding public not to show tolerance,” replied one person. “The homeless who hoard seats, smoke, relieve themselves, and spit on the floors are a big part of the problem… [of] poor ridership and budget shortfalls…. Transit serves the riding public, not those who break society’s contract or norms.”
But it’s important to make a distinction between fairly harmless rule-breaking (sleeping across seats) and truly problematic behavior (the other aforementioned acts.) Enforcing violations that present a safety or health threat to others, such as harassment or smoking, makes sense. But having police evict sleeping homeless people from the trains, as some of my followers suggested, without offering better alternatives, would be inhumane and could easily escalate to violence.
Crain’s reporter Greg Hinz, who has covered this issue in the past, chimed in.
sorry, john. cta isn’t a hotel. i generally agree people shouldn’t be bothered for doing what’s needed to survive. but this city needs a viable, attractive transit system to survive, and that task is markedly harder if folks drive to avoid Ls that r rolling homeless shelters.
— Greg Hinz (@GregHinz) April 6, 2023
He’s right on both counts. So if it’s cruel to kick unhoused people off trains, but letting trains be used as hotels on wheels on a widespread basis is bad for the future of transit, what’s the solution? Clearly the answer is providing permanent housing and supportive services – like mental health treatment, addiction counseling, and employment assistance – to all who want them, ASAP.
Nonprofits like the Night Ministry are already doing the Lord’s work by performing outreach on trains to help connect people with social services, in partnership with the CTA and the Chicago Department of Family and Support Services. The transit agency’s 2023 budget includes an additional $2 million for that initiative.
But what Chicago really needs is a new dedicated funding stream for affordable housing and wraparound services. Prout noted that the Bring Chicago Home ordinance, which would earmark an increase in the real estate transfer tax on $1 million-plus home sales to fund these things, is a promising strategy. Unfortunately, Mayor Lori Lightfoot and her allies have been blocking it.
But there’s a new hope on the horizon, since mayor-elect Brandon Johnson has promised to support Bring Chicago Home. And a fresh crop of progressive alderpersons could help him pass the legislation.
So here’s hoping we can make this commonsense ordinance a reality. The result would be more Chicagoans sleeping in beds instead of on ‘L’ benches; more available seats and nicer conditions on trains for commuters; and increased ridership and revenue for the CTA. Sounds like a win-win-win to me.