By David Cruz
There was an orderliness to the waiting room at Newark’s Penn Station this morning. The waiting room at Newark Penn, one of the state’s busiest transit hubs, can sometimes feel like a wild west way station, where the working class meets the tempest tossed. NJ Transit, which manages the 82-year-old facility, has struggled to keep this public space public and welcoming while being sensitive to Newark’s homeless population. But the agency’s new stricter enforcement of a seating policy in the waiting room has some homeless wondering if they’re being targeted.
“We’re homeless. We don’t have nowhere to go,” said Alvin Payne of Newark. “We come here. We sit. We spend our money here. We eat. We sit down, where we can sit down. Then they come and run us out of here. I mean that’s not fair.”
How often does that happen and how is Payne treated when it does happen? “Every day, and it’s not fair, to me,” he said.
As a public space, New Jersey can’t really exclude anyone from the waiting room, but what they can do is set aside seating specifically for its customers, and those of its tenants, so NJ Transit ticket holders can sit here. Amtrak customers here. Everybody else, including those who may be homeless, can sit in a different section, with a two-hour limit. Patrick Buima spent most of this morning sitting right here, nursing a cup of coffee.
“You know, if these people don’t care of this place, then it will be messed up,” he noted. “It would be very bad. I like the way that they’re doing their jobs and the way they’re acting. They’re not disrespecting anyone even though people disrespect them. I like the way they’re doing their jobs. I love that.”
Homeless people are as much a part of the Penn Station experience as the big board. But, of late, they are harder to spot as the agency seeks to bring some order to the gateway into a city that is experiencing an influx of new residents for the first time in a generation.
“The seating policy at Newark Penn Station is not new,” said a statement from NJ Transit. “The difference customers are seeing now is that instead of New Jersey Transit Police Department officers having to walk around to ask for tickets, customers now show them before entering the seating area. It’s that simple.”
Transit also claims to have a homeless outreach program, but, since a spokesperson wasn’t available to talk to us, we can’t tell you exactly what it does. But the city of Newark says they do not feel like they have a partner in NJ Transit when it comes to helping the homeless.
“When we have to relocate them from their property, they call us and we’re there to assist them and we do it as humanely as possible but as far as them being an advocate and a partner, as far as walking them through the system of getting shelter,” said Kim Gilchrist, program manager for the Newark Homeless Services Department. “If there’s someone there with mental health issues, do we have a partner there? No. The city of Newark does it totally on their own. Salvation Army, Urban League. Those are our partners but NJ Transit? For myself, in my capacity, I don’t have a partner with NJ Transit.”
“They do not want the commuters — from out of town — to be confronted by a homeless person begging for money, or even food or clothing, which we carry around in our trunks, of our private cars,” said Sonia Abreu, relocation officer for the city’s Homeless Services Department. “There is no communication between us and them. We don’t have a contact person.”
The city says it’s holding out hope for closer collaboration with NJ Transit, but so far, officials here say the silence from the transit agency is deafening.