N.Y.’s ‘Mole People’ Shun Society in Transit Tunnels : Homeless: They’ve set up small havens--and even communities--in a nether world of dank rail passages.


On a dark ledge under the Grand Central Station Terminal, just five feet directly above the IRT train’s deadly electrified third rail, a fine stream of sunlight filters down through 20 feet of stagnant air onto a makeshift table. It illuminates a bouquet of flowers and a book by W. H. Auden.

The only other intrusion into the 9-by-9-foot compartment recessed in the tunnel wall is the thunderous quake of passing trains. A flashlight beam stops in a far corner of the room, where a few white plates rest on top of a working toaster-oven and a small refrigerator. An abandoned doll lies on the floor, which is carpeted with old clothes. The doll’s dirt-smudged eyes peer out under shiny, well-stroked hair.

“They were just here,” a guide says, smelling the last drops of milk in a bowl. “They’re probably still here watching us.”


New York’s homeless fearfully speak of the residents of these and other dank underground havens as the “mole people.”

Although some homeless people have found haven in holes burrowed under subway platforms and on catwalks above the roaring trains, the “mole people” are in a different category. Outcasts in a world of outcasts, they have gone deep into the city’s nether world of interconnecting railroad, subway and utility passages, setting up homes and even communities that can number into the hundreds in population.

Estimates of the underground homeless population vary widely. One transit official speculated that up to 25,000 people live in New York’s underground tunnels. A Transit Authority report to the City Council estimated that 5,000 people live in the New York subways alone. But Marsha Martin, a professor of sociology at New York University who headed the report, said that figure is a guess at best.

Transit authorities have one gruesome barometer: Trains derail when they hit a body. That now happens more than once a week, according to one transit official who asked not to be identified.

“That’s often how we discover places where they live--when someone rolls onto the tracks (while sleeping) or touches the third rail” when walking along the tracks, said Lt. John R. Carlo of the New York Metropolitan Transit Police.

Cardboard shanty towns in the tunnels have also started fires along the tracks. Moreover, transit authorities say, some vagrants have started to threaten subway maintenance workers.

Daniel Crump, steward of the city’s Transit Mechanics and Welders Union, worries about an underground population that, he said, has been expanding since the Transit Authority began ejecting the homeless from subway terminals and trains early this year. Crump says more homeless people are venturing into the tunnels now.

“I get calls from my men almost every night saying they’re afraid to go down there. What am I supposed to say when they say there are five or six (homeless) men threatening them or just watching them work?”

Most of the tunnel dwellers are not a threat, he said. But some workers get “piped”--hit on the head and robbed, Crump said.

“I was in Vietnam, and I always walk down as if it were a war zone. Sometimes you put a tool down for a minute, and when you turn back around, it’s gone.

“You always feel their eyes on you,” Crump added. “You can never see them unless they want you to. I’ve tried to chase a few, but they know these passages so well, they can just disappear.”

The path down to the abandoned subway tunnels is littered with syringes and crack vials. Farther along, beyond the lights and naked asbestos, rats dart like quick shadows into man-made holes that the “mole people” call home.

A dangling electric wire hanging down a pick-axed hole is the mode of entry to one man’s living area 20 feet below. As visitors look down, he quickly burrows into a pile of garbage and old clothes to avoid the raw light.

Eerie accounts of the “mole people’s” appearance and behavior come to the surface from time to time. Sociologist Martin said that the stories could be part of an emerging homeless subculture.

Physical descriptions of the group vary from one witness to the next.

“They’ll scare . . . you,” said 26-year-old Tyrone Laster, who spent a year in the tunnels before he started driving trucks at night and doing volunteer work for a homeless organization. “I (generally) wouldn’t go below the second level (of the city’s underground maze of tunnels). They say there are more than six. I went down deep once, don’t know how far, and saw hundreds of them.” His eyes widened. “They got children and everything,” he said.

“They’re ash-colored,” said Ray Grant, 39, who claims to have been homeless for five years and who does volunteer work for the United Homeless Organization. He believes most of the tunnel dwellers he saw are Caucasian, “but they’re so dirty you can’t really tell.”

“You can pass right by them, they hide so well,” Grant said. “They seem to melt into the rock, but you can feel their eyes on you. We brought one up once, from way underground. He started screaming that he was going blind because of the light. We had to let him go back down.”

In some places, communities of “mole people” are well-organized and safer than the city shelters, according to Guy Polhemus, director of We Can, a nonprofit can redemption center that employs some of the tunnel squatters.

“It’s like a city down there. People live together in the most primal way and become communative in a way most apartment dwellers could never become,” said Polhemus, who has earned the confidence of many “mole people” and visited several of their camps.

“You go down there, play with some wires, and you got light,” said Dee Edwards, 31, who lived underground until eight months ago, when he got a job with the Coalition of the Homeless. “And, before you know it, there are 12 to 15 people down there with you.

“They become like neighborhoods. You know the girls at the end, and the family in the middle. Everyone watches out for everyone. One person goes on line (for food) for the rest. When someone gets sick, we put our money together to get medicine. Most people team up. You can just about make it that way.”

But, at the same time, just outside of that insular community, Polhemus said: “You don’t know whether someone down there is going to come up and stab you or offer to help you.”

“Most of the people (who settle into the underground communities) aren’t mentally disturbed,” said Diane Sonde, director of Project Reachout, a city-funded welfare agency that counsels mentally disturbed homeless people on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. “They are just communities of people who decide, for one reason or another, that it’s safer to live down there.”

Curtis Sliwa, a founder of the volunteer patrol Guardian Angels, adds that most tunnel dwellers are peaceful, but, “as bad as we think it is above ground, it’s hell down there. There are a lot of crack-heads, and the cops don’t go down there,” he said.

Indeed, the “mole people” have an unsociable reputation among the other homeless. “They keep to themselves,” Laster said.

“These people choose to live underground,” said Polhemus. “In the way we can’t imagine living down there, they can’t imagine living up here in an apartment.”

J. C., a self-described tunnel dweller who agreed to an interview, said that “mole people,” especially the members of his community, are just homeless who choose “not to deal with society.”

J. C. said he was 43, a Vietnam veteran and unemployed carpenter and mason. He came to an office for the interview wearing an old T-shirt and jeans and new sneakers. His face was drawn but otherwise he looked healthy and clean.

He described an organized group of 145 “mole people” who have elected a mayor who delegates duties. While some members search or stand in line for food, others panhandle, mind the camp or shop for necessities.

People outside “value money, we value survival. We take care of each other,” he said.

But if another homeless person were to stumble onto the community without an invitation, he would be lucky to be seen above ground again. “It’s for security,’C. said.

The community includes “adults” as young as 9 years old, he said.

“There are no children because, once you go down there, you can’t be a child anymore,” he said.

Public attention has not focused on the tunnel dwellers because they largely remain out of sight, well below the level of the Penn Central and Grand Central stations.

A few politicians have spoken out. City Councilman Abraham Gerges of Brooklyn said that he was shocked by the living conditions he found when he was taken down the subway tunnels by some homeless organization workers.

“There were not only mattresses, there was an elaborate setup. They had a way of getting water. It was scary down there. No one should have to be living in those conditions,” Gerges said.

There is no complete blueprint of the entire city underground. Although hundreds of miles of tunnels and compartments were built in the early 1900s, many have been abandoned and forgotten.

Last year Saskia Sassen, an Urban Development professor at Columbia University, sent students to explore a railroad tunnel on the Lower West Side of Manhattan built around the turn of the century. When they got there, however, the students were asked to leave by a community of about 50 people, Sassen said.

“I had never heard that people were living there then or even now. There are probably many places like that,” she said.

Some urban architects say there may be many underground apartments with electricity and running water that the homeless could be using. For example, urban architect Pamela Jones wrote, New York’s first subway was walled off and forgotten for 40 years. A subway construction crew later accidentally tunneled into it, stumbling onto a 120-foot waiting room complete with paintings, frescoes, a fountain and even a grand piano.

The Transit Authority has its doubts that any elaborate warrens exist. “There’s no ‘Beauty and the Beast’ structure down there,” said Sgt. Bryan Henry of the transit police, referring to the CBS television series that depicted an enchanted world in the tunnels under New York City.

Like the squatters in the stations, the tunnel dwellers are not immune from police sweeps. The Transit Authority began moving squatters out of some old railroad tunnels last month after a fire under the West Side Highway caused a ramp to collapse, stranding about 30,000 commuters for several hours.

“It’s another musical chairs game,” said Peter Smith, president of Partnership for the Homeless, explaining that there is nowhere left for homeless squatters to go. “A lot of these folks (in the tunnels) were just kicked out of the subways and train stations. . . . The next place they will go is the East River itself.”

And then there is the question of whether the “mole people” can be found.

To aid in searching, and for their own security, officers often call in police dogs. “Sometimes we let them explore the area before we go into it ourselves,” one transit official said.

But J. C., the spokesman for the tunnel dweller community, said the dogs frequently encounter some very hungry people. “Let me put it this way,” he said in the interview. “Police dogs don’t return.”

“We’ve lost a couple dogs,” the transit official conceded.