Los Angeles Times

A home for the homeless

The lady with a blue flannel coat pulled over her head is sitting up, sound asleep, as the Manhattan-bound A train glides out of the Lefferts Boulevard terminus at 9:32 p.m.

She's an amazingly peaceful sleeper, which will come in handy over the next two hours and 50 minutes as the A runs its three-borough circuit through Queens, Brooklyn and Manhattan and back again to Lefferts.

Clutching a silver boom box and a bottle of City Club Cola, she'll eke out a half-night's sleep on a hard orange bench, surrounded by a chameleon cast of shouting, chattering, screeching, giggling and reggae-singing passengers.

The A train is the Motel 6 of the New York City subway system, a serviceable if spartan late-night flop for the city's hard-core homeless and mentally ill.

"The homeless have always loved the A," said a maintenance manager who simply called himself Ray, as he stood on the Mott Avenue platform in Rockaway. "I've been on this line, on and off, for 25 years and they've always been here."

They're guaranteed at least one to two hours of sleep on each leg. It's 1:33 from here to Inwood. You're not going to get that on the shorter lines, like the 7, where they get half that time."

For two-thirds of its route, the A train chugs snugly underground through the length of Manhattan and the breadth of Brooklyn, protecting riders from the heat and cold. It rises above ground in Queens for a handful of stops, letting in fresh night air, sweetened by Jamaica Bay breezes, before hitting branch ends in Rockaway and Ozone Park.

The homeless sleep on the A train all night, all year, but it turns into a rolling homeless shelter in the winters and summers, when they seek the heat or air-conditioning.

In July, which was unusually cool this year, the Transit Authority's homeless outreach team counted five homeless people at the Rockaway end of the line. But when the weather's worse the numbers can easily double, outreach workers say.

"There's just about one on every car when it's hot or cold," adds Ray, watching his five-member crew swab an idling train.The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, eager to keep air-conditioning and heated air from escaping the cars, keeps most doors closed during 10- to 15-minute turnarounds at the ends of the line, protecting them from the elements.

Family homelessness is at an all-time high and levels of street homelessness have also been rising since the late 1990s, according to the city Department of Homeless Services. A one-night count of unsheltered homeless single adults in February found 582 people in subways or stations -- roughly a quarter of the total street homeless population.

That survey skipped Queens and the Bronx and didn't count dozens of people who still coop in tunnels.

It's not illegal to sleep on the train; scores of commuters do it every day. It is illegal to recline across multiple seats when you're doing it, which is why the homeless, for the most part, sleep sitting up.

The NYPD's homeless outreach unit tries to divert people to shelters or services, and the department tries to avoid making arrests unless a homeless person is violent, loud or won't respond to police's questions.

On this night, the woman gets to sleep, snoring contentedly, from Lefferts until she gets to 59th Street in Manhattan at 10:22.

A tourist from Frankfurt, Germany, who has just handed his camera to a fellow passenger for a shot of himself on the subway, realizes he's missing his stop and kicks the woman's New Balance jogging shoe out before the train leaves the station.

She awakes with a start and for a second the coat drops down to reveal a wild-eyed woman in her mid-40s with an unlined face and an angry smile. Within a minute she's back to sleep.

Finally, at 11:36, the train rumbles through lower Manhattan, picking up passengers and volume. A teenager begins singing a soul song he's composed himself, whose chorus is, "I feel caged within in these walls."

Two minutes later, a beggar enters the car shouting "Please be generous! I don't want to mug people!" over the music.

But it's the Bob Marley impersonator at Hoyt Street-Schermerhorn Street who finally rousts the lady.

At 11:47, he begins a fingers-on-chalkboard rendition of "No Woman, No Cry!" complete with acoustic guitar accompaniment.

That's it. In one violent sweep, the blue flannel jacket goes flying, the cola bottle sails across the car and the woman, banging on her knees in frustration, howls a stream of obscenities that lasts 30 seconds and utterly silences the car around her.

By the time the train enters the Lefferts Boulevard station at 12:22 a.m. to be pulled out of service, she's awake, calm and wearing the coat.

Placing her boom box on the platform, she begins rolling a cigarette and seems surprised when a stranger approaches and asks her if she feels rested.

"I'm on this train every single night. I don't ride no other train," she says. "It's the best line but even so, I don't get no sleep, I just doze, because everybody is talking. I've been doing this about three months, because the city won't give me no housing."

With that, she picks up the radio and steps onto a fresh Inwood-bound train that has arrived across the platform for another stab at sleep.

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