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NYC Transit Authority Accused of Using Covid to Boot Homeless From Subways

Homeless advocacy groups sued the Metropolitan Transportation Authority on Friday, seeking to block Covid-19 rules that they say effectively ban the homeless from sheltering in New York City subway trains and stations.

(CN) — Homeless advocacy groups sued the Metropolitan Transportation Authority on Friday, seeking to block Covid-19 rules that they say effectively ban the homeless from sheltering in New York City subway trains and stations. 

The MTA initially promulgated temporary measures last April in response to the coronavirus pandemic that prohibited bringing large, wheeled carts on subway trains, loitering around in a station for longer than an hour, and staying on out-of-service subway cars during stations’ overnight shutdown from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. for Covid cleaning. 

In September, the transit authority made those rules permanent — a move that advocacy groups Picture the Homeless and Urban Justice Center say effectively bans homeless people from the city’s subway system.

“Even though the Covid-19 pandemic is temporary and the specific conditions which gave rise to the rules’ purported necessity no longer existed a few months later when the rules were permanently adopted, respondents have adopted permanent rules which were not demonstrably necessary to begin with and will continue to regulate the homeless population in a burdensome manner long after the Covid-19 pandemic has subsided,” according to their 44-page lawsuit filed in Manhattan Supreme Court on Friday. 

The groups say the MTA has failed to show how encumbering the homeless effectuates its stated goals of safeguarding public health and ensuring that essential workers commuting on the subway maintain social distancing. 

The lawsuit notes that subway stations offer homeless people temporary refuge from the elements including rain, snow, extreme cold, and heat. 

“The ban on wheel carts essentially forces homeless persons to choose between their belongings and using the subway system,” the complaint states. "Forcing a homeless person to part with their belongings as a condition of using the subway system imposes a substantial economic cost on them, in addition to the emotional cost of losing valued possessions." 

MTA Chairman Pat Foye and New York City Transit Authority Interim President Sarah Feinberg are named as defendants in the suit, along with the MTA, New York City Transit Authority, and the Manhattan and Bronx Surface Transit Operating Authority. 

The advocacy groups allege the MTA rules are arbitrary and capricious violations of the State Administrative Procedure Act and are discriminatory against people of color and the disabled, in violation of New York State Human Rights Law. 

According to the complaint, the MTA rules discriminate against the homeless by allowing carveouts that permit other people doing other activities to linger in subway stations, including those engaged in public speaking, campaigning, leafletting, voter registration activities, artistic performances and solicitations for charities and religious organizations. 

The groups seeks to vacate the three rules and block the MTA from adopting any future similar measures. 

MTA spokesperson Abbey Collins said Friday the agency is reviewing the lawsuit.

“We will vigorously defend the regulations in court that were put in place to protect the health and safety of customers and employees in the midst of a global pandemic – period,” she said in a statement. 

During an appearance on FOX 5's Good Day New York on Friday morning, Feinberg said the city needs to better confront the homelessness crisis.

“I've begged for help. I've said, you know, the solution here is housing and a shelter system that works, not just, you know, letting people go into the subway system,” she said. “I've been a broken record on this for a year and I'll continue to be.” 

Earlier this week, the MTA faced criticism for a since-deleted Twitter reply post that suggested the removal of benches at the 23rd Street Chelsea subway station was meant to "prevent the homeless from sleeping on them." 

The agency said the tweet had been posted in error and that the station’s benches will be replaced following deep cleaning and disinfecting.  

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