"You’re paying to get on, you’re still a customer. You just want to ride around, so what?” — Jeff Credit: Lloyd DeGrane

Last month, standing at a lectern on the platform of the Chicago-State Red Line stop, Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Chicago Police Superintendent David Brown, and CTA President Dorval Carter, Jr. announced a plan “designed to improve public safety and security for Chicago commuters.” The plan includes two new contracts, worth a combined $71 million, for unarmed private security guards to enforce the CTA’s Code of Conduct, and “strategically adjusting resources” from within the Bureau of Counterterrorism to increase surveillance and policing of the Blue and Red Lines. 

Because they run 24 hours, those two lines also serve as vital overnight shelters for many Chicagoans experiencing homelessness, who are frequently separated from “other” CTA commuters in ongoing conversations about public safety, despite paying the same fares. Hiring more security guards to enforce the Code of Conduct—which prohibits behaviors such as sleeping or camping on CTA property, alarming or disturbing others, and loitering—could increase the risk of ticketing and arrest for people using the CTA for shelter. 

As Steve Berg writes for the National Alliance to End Homelessness, “While suffering in plain sight, and making many housed people feel uncomfortable, the vast majority of homeless people, including people with mental illness, aren’t hurting anyone.” Indeed, research shows that people experiencing homelessness are seven to ten times more likely to be victims of violence than their housed counterparts

I interviewed four Chicagoans who use the CTA for shelter to find out more about why they use the trains, and what they think about the current debate around policing and safety on public transit. Their accounts have been edited for clarity and length.

On Thursday, March 24, I sat down for lunch at the McDonald’s on LaSalle and Jackson with Jeff, a white man in his 60s. One summer day nearly three decades ago, Jeff came down from Kenosha for an off-the-books construction job. That night, the truck left without him, and without paying him for the day’s work. Looking for help, Jeff walked from the suburbs into the Loop. He’s struggled with housing ever since.

I met Jeff last year, when he was a resident of the Ewing Annex Hotel. These days, he moves between Lincoln Avenue motels, the CTA, and in a tent he’s pitched at a small green space downtown. Jeff’s words follow:

I used to stay on the Red Line, but then I switched to the Blue Line. But it’s getting just as bad as the Red Line now. I used to stay on the train; now sometimes I stay on the platform. It’s a closed platform between Monroe and Jackson that they’re not using. I would stay there. There’s a plug where I can plug my phone in and all that. They got WiFi under there too. The first time I stayed there was maybe six months ago. I went back there three days ago.

I don’t do shelters. I’ve gotten in fights there. They got too many rules. I don’t like the people that are there—they’re usually troublemakers. So I prefer not to be in a shelter. I’ll stay out in the cold before I stay out in a shelter.

The first time I stayed on the train was . . . man. It was years ago. Many years ago. It was probably close to my last time there, too.

[Jeff witnessed a violent mugging soon after he began staying on the Red Line that left him shaken.]

So I have a hard time staying on the Red Line after that happened.

A month ago, I was on the Blue Line at about 2 o’clock in the morning, going to O’Hare because they said you could stay at O’Hare. Almost every car had homeless people on them. They were laying around, had blankets on. It was cold.

And they stopped at Cumberland, and security guards got everybody off the train. It must’ve been about 60 homeless people. They stayed right there until everybody was off. There was another train coming back the other way. They wouldn’t take nobody to O’Hare.  

Now the city is putting more money into policing the CTA. There was like four cops at the Jackson stop. I talked to them, I told them I needed to charge my phone, I’ve stayed down there and stuff. They know I got my bag, they leave me alone. Now they got this security guard, they’re kind of difficult. I don’t think they’re doing much.

As far as people messing with people: if staying on the CTA was safer, I think more people would do it. But a lot of people know about the pickpockets and people beating up on people, so they don’t do it.

It’s obvious why people stay on the train: they ain’t got nowhere else to stay out of the elements. People sleep on the train for warmth, heat, to stay out the rain, out the cold. If you pay to get on, why not? You’re paying to get on, you’re still a customer. You just want to ride around, so what? 

Even people who ain’t homeless fall asleep on the train. How many people get on the train, have a house, have a place to go to, plan on getting off at a stop, and then fall asleep and miss their stop?

Later that night, I went to the Forest Park Blue Line stop. From around 8 PM to midnight every Thursday, staff from The Night Ministry are out on the lower platform, providing free health care, harm reduction supplies, and outreach services to anyone who needs them.

There, I met T, a Black man in his 50s with a quiet, passionate voice and a slight stutter, while he was in line to fill out paperwork for a new state ID. (IDs are required to obtain housing, Medicaid, and other benefits, but many people who are homeless don’t have one, and the application process can be a significant barrier without advocate support.) T grew up on the west side, and has been staying on the CTA for shelter since last winter. He misses his kids and family, and asked to use my phone after our interview to call his cousin. This is what T told me:

Homeless people is not the ones that doing the crime—I mean, it’s guys that get on the train, they get on there and take stuff. That’s what they do. We get on the train, we just trying to make it to daylight the next day. Why would a homeless person wanna start something he knew he ain’t got no win in? It doesn’t happen like that.

Homeless people don’t mess with nobody. They don’t do that. What they gonna do that for? It’s not beneficial, it’s not gonna help them at all.

I stay overnight on the Blue Line. It’s a place to stay. You do have people on there that are your friends, that you might say are your friends. I never stay on the Red Line.

[T says he rides the Blue Line to O’Hare; unlike Jeff, he says he’s never been forced to depart the train before that last stop.]

I’m really tired right now. You gotta make sure that you got your things, because people be along and take your stuff. I had a fight on the Blue Line a couple weeks ago. That’s how I got my hand messed up. They was high, getting high. They hit me with a stick. I’m glad they didn’t break my nose. They took my stuff in a bag.

If police and security guards are gonna be on the train to kick a few homeless off, it’s gonna be a problem. That’s all I’m saying. At least sometime, they gotta understand, we just have nowhere to go. There’s a lot of property out here, buildings out here, they should do something about. Everybody can’t live in Pacific Gardens.

Homeless people don’t have anywhere to go. We really gotta try to get back to reality. That’s the thing that’s gonna give you a normal living, you know? Riding on the CTA train is not normal. You have to do it if you have to do it. We are very fortunate that the Blue Line runs all night. Very fortunate. If it didn’t run all night, can you imagine where all the guys, all the people would be? Can you imagine? Can you imagine?

You know what they’d be doing? They’d be breaking into abandoned buildings. It’s really a blessing that you got that train running 24 hours.

After T finishes calling his cousin, I meet Brian, a white man in his 50s who grew up in Tinley Park. A veteran with an active addiction, Brian tells me he’s overdosed more than a dozen times. He sets bags of food, clothes, and harm reduction supplies from The Night Ministry at his feet while we talk. His left foot is in a boot brace. A month ago, Brian says, he got jumped on the platform of the Jackson Blue Line stop, and his ankle broke when he was pushed to the ground. Brian’s words follow:

I sleep on the Blue Line. Just ride the motherfuckin’ train motherfuckin’ back and forth. However, I’m working on getting this little apartment. Well, I’ve got the apartment, but I’m splitting it with someone. I’m trying to break totally away from drugs, and I keep seeing needles and shit on the table. Gotta get that out of the equations.

“Let’s figure out what the root cause is for why you’re homeless. Don’t beat up on yourself. It’s something in your past that happened.” — Brian.
Credit: Lloyd DeGrane

I’ve stayed on the train on and off for ten years. I’ve been robbed, yeah. Gun right to my head, ch-ch. Someone tried to take my shit. Sometimes if I take too many pills, like benzodiazepines, Xanax—it knocks you out completely.

It is absolutely not true that homeless people are why crime is rising on the CTA. A lot of the homeless people, they get out every day and work hard, shake their cup, try to make money and take care of theirself. But that’s just another propaganda we’re reading, unfortunately. I would debate this for an hour. There’s some bad apples, I get it. But there’s bad apples at Pacific Gardens, and that’s Jesus-rollin’, you know what I mean?

Why do homeless people get blamed? If you’re homeless and sleeping on the train, you can’t rob nobody. There are other people. I see how they do and how the whole operation works. They wait until you’re real close to the station. Just tapping away, tapping away, as soon as the door opens up, boom. They grab your phone and run into the dark until they’re gone.

There are several reasons I don’t stay in a shelter. A, You still can get your belongings stolen. B, we’re not over this COVID yet. C, you gotta worry about getting bedbugs, and D, if you ever do get a shower, it’s ice cold, the water’s ice cold. The food, you know—you know what? The animals eat better, I’ll put it that way. And that’s not fair, you know, a motherfucker’s down on their luck.

Let’s figure out what the root cause is for why you’re homeless. Don’t beat up on yourself. It’s something in your past that happened.When you were growing up, you didn’t tell your mom, your dad, your school, “What color’s your daddy’s eyes?” “Blue.” “What color’s your daddy’s eyes?” “Green.” When it comes to my daughter, it’s “What color’s your daddy’s eyes?” “Red.” [Laughs a little.] You understand?

A week later, home in my apartment, I called Kelly, a white woman in her 40s. I met Kelly when I was working on a story about the Loop’s Pigeon Lady. The day I first interviewed her was, coincidentally, her last day using the CTA for shelter: the next morning, she picked up keys to her first apartment in six years—an efficiency she shares with her boyfriend, Marcus. This is what Kelly told me:

My first experience staying on the CTA was in 1999. I was 19. I last stayed in December 2021. I used to do the Blue Line. I did do the Red Line a few times. They’re really both dangerous, but for some reason I think the Red Line is more dangerous. I’d stay from anywhere around 9 PM to midnight, I’d get on the train, and then around 6 or 7 AM is when I would get off. 

I did it for a couple months each year. I would start in the middle of November, and stop in January, sometimes February, depending on the weather. There were some days when I stayed outside, and other times I’d sleep on the train. I have my boyfriend: he was with me most of the time, which made me feel a little bit safer. 

You’re talking about the homeless people being a problem on the CTA. We wanna be dry, and sometimes homeless people are scared to sleep outside. But the homeless people are actually, I believe, more the victims than the suspects. 

It’s ridiculous. I have gotten so, so many backpacks stolen from me while I fell asleep. I would try so hard to not sleep so hard. But sometimes when you’re up all that time, your body is just so exhausted. I’ve always said this: like, whatever is in my backpack, or any homeless person’s backpack, probably is not useful to a “normal” person.

“Sometimes I feel like they just do shit to be deceitful and discriminate against homeless people.” — Kelly.
Credit: Lloyd DeGrane

Sometimes the CTA people try to get all the homeless people onto one train. Let’s say you get to the end of the line at Forest Park. [CTA workers] say, “Oh this train is not working, so the next train going out is the one, you know, on the next track. So everybody to the next track.” So the homeless people move to the next train and go back and forth. But then, along the way, of course they pick up more homeless people on the different stops. And then, when they get to O’Hare, they try to do the same thing. They’ll wake you up at the end of the line, make everybody get up and move to another train. Sometimes, if they see this whole train is homeless people, they’re like, “Man, don’t bother ’em, don’t even wake them up, just let ’em sleep.” This way, the regular people, the non-homeless people who are taking public transportation are separated from us.

It’s very annoying. I’ve even gotten into arguments with security guards. Like in the winter, you get to Forest Park, it’s outside at the Blue Line. They’re assholes. There’ll be a train sitting there, nobody will be on it, doors are shut. And we’re all standing there freezing cold. Sometimes they’ll do that for a half hour, 40 minutes. And we’ll say, “What the hell, open the door!” And they’ll say, “This train is out of order. The next train, that’s the one going back out.”

Sometimes I feel like they just do shit to be deceitful and discriminate against homeless people. It is discrimination! I know there’s a lot of homeless people that are alcoholics, or drug addicts, and a lot of them do their whatever openly on the train, and it probably gets the other passengers irritated.

I’ve been asked many times why I stayed on the train and not in a shelter. And this is what I say. The shelters are very dangerous, just like on the streets. They’ve got thieves, they’ve got people that are dangerous, they have bedbugs—it’s not a place that I’ve ever found comfort to be in. I’m already homeless, miserable, going through something. So why would I go out to another place, you know what I’m saying? And be more miserable?

If I lost this apartment, I would probably not stay on the CTA again. It’s gotten so bad. Now they’ve got some kind of new security supposedly, and if it works out and is really making it safer, then I would say OK. But other than that, honestly, I feel safer just making a pallet on the ground and sleeping outside.

I just want people to know that it’s not always the homeless, you know? People who take the train back and forth to work, you do not have to be scared of the homeless.

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