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MTA's proposed rules target homeless population, advocate says

A view of a homeless person inside an

A view of a homeless person inside an MTA train during the coronavirus pandemic on May 16 in New York City. Credit: John Nacion/STAR MAX/IPx/John Nacion/STAR MAX/IPx

MTA officials are set to vote Wednesday on several new rules for using the transit system, including many that appear to target homelessness and loitering at Long Island Rail Road stations.

The proposed amendments to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s rules of conduct include measures limiting how long someone can sit on a station bench or inside a station shelter, prohibiting lying down at stations, and banning the use of shopping carts.

The measures have been in place since April under Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s COVID-19 emergency declaration, which was used, in part, to address concerns about homelessness throughout the MTA system, including by removing people from the New York City subway system during overnight hours so that trains and stations can be deep-cleaned. The proposal being taken up by the MTA Board on Wednesday will codify the restrictions.

In its written proposal, the MTA said the moves aim to carry out the agency’s "statutory authority and duty to make rules and regulations governing the conduct and safety of the public in the use of their subways, commuter trains, stations and terminals."

Among the proposed changes: a provision limiting to 90 minutes the amount of time that people could use benches, chairs or other station furniture, or remain inside a station platform shelter; a ban on people lying down on tables, benches, chairs, other furniture, or sitting on platforms, stairs, tables, counters or landings; and the prohibition of wheeled carts greater than 30 inches in length or width, except for authorized deliveries or baby strollers.

The new rules also give the LIRR new leeway to restrict alcohol consumption in the system. Whereas the railroad previously allowed drinking on trains, platforms and at stations, the new rules give the LIRR "discretion to determine where and when to allow such activities."

Although the proposal does not specify the potential consequences of not following the new policies, violations of other MTA rules of conduct come with fines ranging from $25 to $100, and potential ejection from the transit system.

MTA spokesman Aaron Donovan said the changes are aimed at ensuring a safe, secure and clean environment, and apply to all customers. But Greta Guarton, executive director for the Long Island Coalition for the Homeless — a nonprofit advocacy group — said some of the new rules "are the equivalent of criminalizing homelessness."

"The folks that are spending that time at a train station are not there to make anyone feel uncomfortable. They’re trying to save their own lives by staying warm," said Guarton, who believes the MTA should instead improve its homeless outreach efforts with the goal of helping finding permanent, affordable housing for those dwelling at train stations. "In order for those folks to leave there, they need to have somewhere safe to go."

But some LIRR commuters applauded the rule changes, including Monica Blair. She long has complained to the MTA and its police department about the conditions at Merrick station, where she’s seen "as many as five homeless people passed out" inside the platform shelter.

"I don’t feel safe. And I think that's the most offensive thing — that I don’t feel safe commuting from my own town. And I should," said Blair, who believes the new rules must be paired with increased police enforcement. "The conductors aren’t going to be able to enforce this, and I don’t expect them to put themselves in harm’s way, either. They didn’t sign up for that."

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