Midtown Manhattan’s new Moynihan Train Hall features gleaming chrome accents, a glitzy Starbucks and a stand filled with fresh flowers. Despite all of these enticements, one distinct quality remains — the awkward positions all of the occupants are in. Traveling families wall themselves in with suitcases, solo backpackers squat on the ground with their luggage tucked underneath them, and tourists loop through Hudson Booksellers while picking up and putting down pocketbook paperbacks. Everyone is in motion, despite the fact that they are going nowhere. They are stranded until their train number or platform number is called. The culprit for this forced standing, forced squatting and forced browsing is the lack of seating.
While the lack of seating may be a minor nuisance to tired travelers, it is representative of a larger issue — anti-homeless architecture. Also known as “hostile architecture,” anti-homeless architecture dissuades people from sitting, lying on or otherwise occupying, public spaces. Examples include spikes on low walls and metal armrests dividing benches into multiple seats. Less obvious is the deliberate absence of any substitutes for seating, such as the empty floors in Moynihan Train Hall. The chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), Janno Lieber, said that the original plan for the Train Hall simply “didn’t get down to the detail of if and where we should put benches.” Moynihan’s only seating area requires a ticket purchase, and even travelers who are willing to sit on the floor may be reprimanded for doing so. A Train Hall visitor, Cindy Finch, recalled, [HYPERLINK: https://www.ny1.com/nyc/all-boroughs/transit/2022/09/23/penn-station-s-redesign-master-plan-neglected-to-include-public-seating] “One of security people came over and directed me to the waiting area and I said, ‘Oh, I’m good, I’m fine, I can sit on the ground, it’s OK’ and he’s like no you can’t you can’t sit here.’” All of these tactics are part of a subtle but determined effort to keep homeless people out of public spaces — exacerbating the stigma around homelessness while deliberately avoiding initiatives that may ameliorate the issue.
Critics of Moynihan Train Hall’s architecture characterize it as the paragon of cruel public infrastructure. Mother Jones writer Tim Murphy suggests that “The problem with Moynihan is not just a problem with Moynihan — it is merely a very expensive version of a problem that’s now endemic to public infrastructure. One of the animating principles of modern civic life is to make public resources increasingly inaccessible in order to prevent public resources from being used in the wrong way, or used at all by the wrong people.” By refusing to build seats or anything resembling a seat, as even the waist-high radiators now have signs warning visitors not to sit on them, the architects of Moynihan Train Hall — and the politicians who supported its construction like former governor Andrew Cuomo — played into the dehumanization of those searching for a place to rest.
The lack of seating in Moynihan Train Hall, as well as the scores of hostile architecture around the city, perpetuate stereotypes of homeless people — namely, the idea that homeless people are simply loiterers who choose not to have jobs. Many homeless individuals are active job seekers — a 2018 study reported that “45 percent of homeless single adults and 38 percent of homeless adults in families still earned wages from employment while homeless.” And perhaps more harmful than extending these stereotypes, anti-homeless architecture directs attention away from the real issue — the lack of stable housing and social infrastructure for New Yorkers.
New York’s homeless crisis has reached its highest peak since the 1930s, according to the Coalition for the Homeless. The Bowery Mission, a nonprofit organization for the homeless, reports that nearly one in 120 New Yorkers are homeless. Despite these alarming figures, the city remains woefully unequipped to provide adequate care for the unhoused. Thousands of New Yorkers are forced to seek shelter in subway stations, in makeshift camps or on the street. The city’s shelter system is also flawed. Facilities are often in disrepair, lacking kitchens and even clean water at times. Last November, asylum seekers in New York living in homeless shelters claimed [HYPERLINK: https://gothamist.com/news/nyc-migrant-crisis-highlights-long-standing-homeless-shelter-issues] that “A lot of the food that they’re getting is two, three, four days old […] They have no place to warm it.” Moreover, the length of residency in homeless shelters has also increased. The extended stay detracts from the purpose of homeless shelters — temporary refuges to allow homeless individuals and families to stabilize their situations — and continuously subjects homeless New Yorkers to subpar conditions. Some homeless people prefer living on the street or in camps rather than staying in shelters which, along with being run-down, can foster hostile relations among the residents and between the residents and the employees.
In New York, one of the most common reasons for homelessness is a lack of affordable housing, an issue that is affecting even those who have stable incomes. Anti-homeless architecture minimizes the city’s pre-existing lack of space. The solution to the homelessness crisis is not to ignore its existence through dazzling new infrastructure projects. It is to consciously contribute funds to activist initiatives that are in dialogue with those in need.
The Coalition for the Homeless suggests that it is not enough to build simple housing. Rather, all new housing units for the homeless should be supportive housing, or housing “which pairs affordable housing with on-site supportive services.” Moreover, the Coalition suggests that new housing should prioritize those who are ill and those who have long histories of homelessness. New supportive housing initiatives ought to also “allocate greater resources to help those with the greatest needs. Research shows that an estimated 20 percent of homeless families need housing with onsite supports — more than simple rental assistance — in order to overcome homelessness. Much greater proportions of homeless individuals, particularly those with disabilities, need both the housing and services that supportive housing provides.” In fact, supportive housing has existed successfully for decades. Breaking Ground, a housing initiative for the homeless, has operated permanent supportive housing since 1990. According to the organization, Breaking Ground operates almost 4,000 housing units in New York City, as well as housing in upstate New York and Connecticut. They argued that supportive housing, which they defined as “affordable housing paired with wraparound services designed to help people maintain their homes for the long-term,” has been proven to be a cost-effective solution to chronic homelessness. Members of Breaking Ground also build personal relationships with homeless people on the streets, assisting them through the lengthy documentation process to apply for housing.
Homelessness is an issue encroaching upon multiple levels of society, exacerbated by rising rental prices. Funding supportive housing is an essential step toward addressing the homelessness crisis, but perhaps the first step comes from within ourselves — we must recognize that homeless people do not need to prove themselves to deserve a seat.
Kathryn Lee is a sophomore double-majoring in English and economics.