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The New York City Subway System Suspends Its Round-The-Clock Service

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

One of the hallmarks of New York City was its 24-hour subway service. But like many aspects of daily life, the system has been disrupted by the coronavirus. With ridership levels plummeting, some of the only people left on trains are the homeless. So the Metropolitan Transportation Authority is suspending overnight service in an effort to protect subway workers and essential workers who still commute. From member station WNYC in New York, Stephen Nessen reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AUTOMATED VOICE: This is the last stop on this train.

STEPHEN NESSEN, BYLINE: It's nearly 1 o'clock in the morning at the Coney Island terminal. There are dozens of people on the platform. Several have bags overflowing with plastic bottles. Others are in tattered clothes, shoeless and look dazed. Adding to the chaos on the platform are dozens of NYPD officers telling them to leave. Their job is made harder every few minutes when another train pulls into the station with more homeless people aboard.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Train's going to the yard, guys. You got to get off.

NESSEN: In one car, there's a couple sleeping under a blanket who won't budge. So the officer pulls out a metal flashlight and raps it against a pole.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLINKING)

NESSEN: A woman emerges and starts cursing. The man doesn't move, so the officer checks his pulse. It's fine. They eventually get off. This is what shutting down the New York City subway looks like. It's less about turning off the lights and more about clearing out a homeless population that would rather ride the trains all night than enter the city's crowded and, in some cases, unsafe shelters. Train conductor Eddie Muniz says he knows that couple well.

EDDIE MUNIZ: Oh, sure. They're regulars. They play this game every night. They'll pull cords. They'll pee. They'll do whatever they want inside the train, and there's nothing we can do.

NESSEN: One hundred and nine MTA workers have died from COVID-19, more than any other city or state agency workforce. Muniz worries about catching the coronavirus from these riders every day.

MUNIZ: Of course I am. My family is. My kids cry when I come to work. They're nervous they might not see me again 'cause if I get sick, they can't see me in the hospital.

NESSEN: Since March, the agency has been disinfecting all subway cars every 72 hours and cleaning stations every 24 hours. But after the local tabloids published photos of homeless people in trash-strewn subway cars, Governor Andrew Cuomo called the images, quote, "disgusting" and said the MTA needs to get them out.

MUNIZ: To let homeless people stay on the trains in the middle of a global health pandemic with no masks, no protective equipment - you're not helping the homeless.

NESSEN: From 1 a.m. to 5 a.m., when ridership is low anyway, 1,000 NYPD officers will be sent to clear out the homeless from trains and stations. But Giselle Routhier, the policy director at Coalition for the Homeless, says more police is not going to reduce homelessness.

GISELLE ROUTHIER: It's not only just a waste of resources but will push people further into the shadows, will push people into the elements on the streets.

NESSEN: Fifty-three-year-old Craig Bennett agrees. For the past few weeks, he's been in and out of a shelter and sleeping on trains. Wednesday morning, wearing a brown jacket and carrying his belongings in two small bags, he'd planned to stay on the subway all night. When his train pulled into the Coney Island station, he was told to leave.

CRAIG BENNETT: To shut down the train system was very stupid. This is New York's bloodline. We need this very much.

NESSEN: Two officers offer to help him find a shelter, but later, he was spotted sitting on a subway bench. By 2 a.m., the entire station is emptied of people. But outside on the street, there are nearly 50, many of whom say they're waiting for 5 a.m. so they can return to the trains.

For NPR News, I'm Stephen Nessen in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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