As members of the Transit Police Homeless Outreach Unit put on rubber gloves and nylon vests for another night patrolling the dank subway tunnels below the Bowery, Lt. John Romero spotted a prostitute he knew ambling along the street.
"Barbara, come here," he called out to the woman, whom he knew as a frequent crack smoker in the tunnels. "I want to talk to you."Romero handed her a ham on whole-wheat sandwich from a transit police van. After some small talk, he pleaded with her to accept a ride to a shelter where she could sleep and begin treatment for drug addiction.
She refused, even though it was a hot, rainy night in August, then walked away with a friendly wave.
So began another night in the life of a little-known transit police unit that has become the model for Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's plan to form a 37-member Police Department team to persuade homeless people living on the streets to move to shelters. The unit works citywide but concentrates on lower Manhattan.
While the unit tries to deliver social services to the homeless, its ultimate mission is to make the subway system safer for all users. Investigators say they believe the fire in a subway cable room Friday morning that forced the rerouting of hundreds of trains was probably caused by a homeless person who evaded the unit.
During a recent tour down the rat-infested pits around the Broadway-Lafayette station, the unit encountered seven homeless people living in a pitch-black world of high-tension third rails and ear-splitting shooting trains, something akin to an underground Federico Fellini movie set.
Only one of the seven accepted a van ride to a shelter, where social workers tried to coax him into treatment. The six others, including one who voluntarily dropped his pants to show them a hernia the size of a golf ball, were gently hustled out of the tunnels to find their way through the wet streets and parks.
Such limited results, repeated night after night, suggest that Giuliani's planned police squad will probably have a difficult time making an impact on the city's homeless.
Advocates for the homeless, who are critical of the squad, say they fear that the mayor is simply trying to muscle the indigent away from public places. Even Joan Malin, commissioner of the Department of Homeless Services, said any police strategy that simply moved the homeless from one neighborhood to the next would undermine the long-term efforts by local social service agencies that counsel the same people day after day.
But the transit squad officers argue that they have proven that the police do have a role to play in removing the homeless from dangerous places. One of those places was the site of a fire Friday morning that forced the shutdown of the Eighth Avenue subway line.
The transit squad officers proudly note that the head of the new police squad, Lt. Delia Mannix, has consulted closely with them and gone out with the transit unit in planning her own operations. The police unit is scheduled to begin late this fall.
In recent years the transit unit has become more active in taking homeless people from the subways to shelters, particularly from mid-November to mid-April, when the tunnels are most crowded. The number of homeless people transported by the police rose to a high of 5,103 last winter from 1,400 in the winter of 1990-1991.
The transit police estimate that the total of 5,000 people who lived in the subways in 1989 has been reduced to fewer than 1,000 today. The number of homeless who died of various causes in the subway system fell to 42 in 1993 from a high of 79 in 1989.
But the long-term benefits of the program for the homeless are more difficult to measure. Romero, the commander of the 46-member transit squad, said he could not be sure how many homeless people had been settled in shelters for more than one night or how many were successfully treated by his squad since it was founded in 1982.
Arguing that some homeless people may respond better to an authority figure like a police officer than to a counselor, he said, "We can tell people to move, but at the same time we are social workers telling these people there are alternatives."