Homeless on the rails

by Bernard McCormick Wednesday, November 26, 2014 No Comment(s)

Grand Central Station
It was winter in the mid 1980s, and we were in New York City because they paid three times as much as you could get for the same articles in South Florida. The problem was affording New York prices, which was solved by freeloading with our brother’s family in Westchester County. Getting there from the city was an easy ride on Metro-North, but that meant leaving from Grand Central Station. The station, one of the most famous in the world, was infested with homeless people.

There were hundreds of them, all over the place. Like most major rail terminals, Grand Central devoted a considerable amount of space for benches where travelers could wait until their train was called. But there were almost no travelers using the benches because homeless people were sprawled every which way in the waiting room, trash around them, aisles blocked by stuffed plastic bags. It was, to one who remembered Grand Central from an earlier time, an appalling scene, something from the third world, a dirty chaotic affront to thousands of travelers, many of them visitors from afar.
Fortunately, for those awaiting trains, there was a place of public refuge. In a mezzanine overlooking the many gates to the tracks, there was a bar, a New York landmark of sorts. It was always busy, especially at rush hour. It was hard to find a seat there and the drinkers were often several deep. No homeless were among that crowd; they couldn’t afford the drink prices.

Now, to people from New York, the homeless situation was no revelation. But to those from outside the city, seeing it for the first time was a shock, for the national news did not pay much attention, and no television satirists mocked the officials who tried to do something about it. And the city did try, constantly removing the people, sometimes busing them to shelters, trying to keep the waiting room orderly and available for travelers. Advocates for the homeless called this heartless, forcing people into the cold nights and citing the constitutional right of poor people to mingle with those better off. 

Cops were quoted as feeling constrained; they could not arrest people for simply being in a public place. Some homeless were quoted, saying they did not like public shelters because of the rules. Homeless people do not like rules.

We did not see it firsthand, but eventually over 25 years the situation improved. That is, until recently. News reports on the Internet from last year said the situation at the terminal was returning to the 1980s. One newspaper, clearly no friend of the homeless, described “hobos” picking through trash cans for food. And again, the city was confronted by advocates defending the constitutional right of people to exist where they want to.

To this observer, the situation at Grand Central was light years more serious, and far more of a public nuisance, than what has been happening in Fort Lauderdale, with the efforts of the city to keep homeless from congregating in public parks and being fed on its popular beach. And yet Fort Lauderdale got a storm of bad national press, making the city look callous in its approach to a problem that is growing nationally, and which is not being handled well anywhere. 

It has been pointed out that South Florida may be bearing more than its share of the problem, for it is warm and when people drift toward the sun, this is as far as they can go, unless they try Central America. Perhaps that’s what happened to New York’s unfortunates in the 1980s. They may have simply moved to Florida, but probably not by train.
The recent issue of Gold Coast and Boca Lifemagazines carried a story on the transformation of Dillard Elementary School in northwest Broward from a failing school to one that is much in demand. Enrollment is the best indication of a community’s response to a school. We failed to note that in just three years under the leadership of Principal Angela Brown, Dillard Elementary has proved so successful that it went from under-enrolled to almost doubling its enrollment to more than 800 students. It is now over-enrolled, and has become one of the larger grade schools in Broward County.

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