a symmetrical shot of the open doors of a CTA el train
“I asked Tracy what public safety measures he needed to be safe on the CTA. His answer surprised me. It didn’t include more police, arrests, or cameras.” Credit: Kirk Williamson for Chicago Reader

One morning late in February, I was riding the Red Line, one cracked earbud in my ear, when a hoarse, good-natured voice boomed through whatever depressing podcast I was listening to. “Good morning! Good morning, fellow Chicagoans! I hope you all have a beautiful day.” A stocky middle-aged Black man, swaying slightly, had just boarded at the Sheridan stop. Standing near the door with a can in his hand, under the clang of doors and recorded CTA announcements, he greeted everyone who entered and exited, none of whom greeted him back. His expression was pleasant, hopeful. I watched as he tried mightily to make eye contact with anyone; a few of us smiled cautiously over our masks. “Good morning! How are you?” he asked one of us, a white man standing near the door. The man obliged. 

As they fell into conversation, I felt the rest of the train begin to relax, and I began to zone back out. “I’ve been sleeping on the CTA for six months. Can you believe that? I sat up and took my earbud out. 

This is how I met Tracy III, age 52, a former CTA worker, current resident of the Red Line, and a believer in both the Candyman and Christ. 

“I be afraid to talk close to people because my breath don’t smell as good, but you got your face covered,” he said as we made our way to two open seats. I assured him he was fine. “I probably just smell like alcohol,” he chuckled. “But I ain’t mad about my drinking. Jesus came down, and he drunken the wine, though people won’t tell you about that.”

Last year, Tracy’s apartment caught fire after he tried to cook some french fries. “Me and my landlord fell out,” he said. “I went to court and tried to fight her, but she wanted me out.” He’s been homeless ever since. “I can go deep with you, young lady,” he continued. “I’m homeless for a reason: due to that landlord. How one person destroy somebody’s life like that, and cause me to be homeless?”

What’s it been like to stay on the CTA? I asked. 

“What has it been like?” he repeated back to me, a little incredulous. “To tell you the truth, like hell.”

The day before, someone stole his sunglasses. A few weeks earlier, Tracy was asleep on the train when someone else stole his whole bag, which included his ID, Social Security card, and birth certificate. “I should have never hid it all in one bag,” Tracy lamented. “I woke up with no identification.” After the theft, Tracy went to the Harold Washington Library in the Loop, where social workers and case managers set up office hours every Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday on the third floor. They provide free services like legal assistance, housing intake, and more: “They gave me all the papers to get my ID back,” Tracy told me, “but this is so sad—somebody stole that!”

The repeated thefts Tracy experienced fit into a pattern of anecdotes I’ve heard from other unhoused people who stay on the CTA. I was interested in talking to him about his experience using the CTA for shelter because, for a while now, I’ve no longer understood what we’re talking about when we talk about public safety on the CTA. By “we” I mean housed Chicagoans who ride the trains, but also media and local politicians. 

I definitely don’t feel safe,” one CTA rider told NBC Chicago in March. Another called for police officers in every station so “we can feel secure.” I ride the CTA multiple times a week and have no shortage of experiences that, at some point, have made me feel tense or uncomfortable. But there’s a difference between feeling uncomfortable or unsafe and being in actual danger. Police might make some people feel safer, but there are many studies that demonstrate that an increase in police leads to an increase in misdemeanor arrests, which does not reduce crime, especially not the violent crime housed people are told they’re at risk of on the CTA. What do these arrests accomplish? They “keep people from jobs, housing, and welfare benefits” and “make it harder for police to investigate violent crime,” according to the Equal Justice Initiative. Another study from TransitCenter found that increasing police on public transit increases racial discrimination and disparities in enforcement of the law: “The overreliance on police for routine safety issues often makes riders less safe, as police response to ‘code of conduct’ issues like putting feet on seats, eating food, or not paying the fare is consistently discriminatory against Black and brown riders and regularly escalates into incidents of brutality.”

Especially around election times, “public safety” gets thrown around by politicians and government officials as a buzzword. Who gets to be a member of the public in public safety, and who doesn’t? “They can’t be in our airports,” said Mayor Lightfoot (emphasis mine) at a press conference shortly before February’s general election, after city police swept unhoused people from O’Hare. In Meeting the Moment, the post-pandemic action plan released by CTA president Dorval R. Carter Jr. in August 2022, the very presence of unhoused people on the CTA is listed under “Security issues.” “CTA has also seen growing concern from our customers about unruly behavior and crime near and on our system,” the memo reads (emphasis mine). “[I]ndividuals struggling with homelessness, mental health issues, and drug abuse are often utilizing CTA as a shelter of last resort, raising concerns around safety, cleanliness, and overall function transit [sic].” 

Safety for who, and from what? What are we talking about here, exactly? To my knowledge, no evidence exists that shows unhoused CTA riders are more likely to commit crime or exhibit “unruly behavior” (whatever that is) than their housed counterparts, and yet this narrative linking the presence of unhoused people to dangers and discomforts for housed riders has been repeated over the last couple years: “CTA is developing plans with social service agencies to address issues of mental health and homelessness that also affect safety on trains and buses,” reported WTTW after the memo’s release; “Enhance safety for riders by expanding police officer patrols with the Chicago Police Department, increase the number of security guards from 200 to 300, reintroduce canine units, target fare theft with new tall fare gates and collaborate with social services organizations for unhoused people,” reported the Sun-Times

[The CTA is] . . . a big, crashing mess at the moment, with the tubes filthy and stained with graffiti, elevators and escalators out of operation, cars converted into rolling homeless shelters, rules about eating and smoking seemingly forgotten, and police presence all but invisible,” wrote Crain’s Chicago Business’s Greg Hinz in 2021, with the cadence and restraint of Peter Venkman terrifying the mayor in Ghostbusters. In the accompanying photo, taken by Hinz, a Chicagoan is curled up across four seats, huddled under a dirty jacket. “People just aren’t going to ride a system that is dirty, dark and scary,” he continued. “Are you listening, Mayor Lori Lightfoot?” A quick Google search of “Chicago CTA homeless” pulls up other photos of people—asleep, unconscious, and presumably unconsenting to being the example of all that is “dirty, dark, and scary”—in stories from CBS News, ABC7, WBEZ, Medill, and the Chicago Defender, among others. 

Not every person who is homeless is mentally ill or uses drugs, and having one of those traits—or all three—doesn’t make you dangerous; it makes you vulnerable. Indeed, study after study demonstrates that people without homes are far more likely to be victims of violent crime than they are to commit it. “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,” wrote Steve Berg, chief policy officer of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, in a 2022 blog post. That truth didn’t stop the majority of us riders, myself included, from tensing up when Tracy boarded, beer can in hand, and tried so hard to get any of us to say hello. I focused on myself and a perceived threat to my emotional comfort. What if Tracy was so drunk that he made me feel sad, or what if he asked me for money and I felt guilty? What if he became verbally pushy, and I had to be assertive? What then?

What happened was this: The train kept moving, and Tracy and I rode it together. He told me a little about his life growing up in Cabrini-Green, raised by parents who were together until death. For about eight months in 2017, Tracy even worked for the CTA himself, cleaning the  train cars. But his father’s unexpected death triggered a profound depression, exacerbated by family strife in the wake of the loss. “Sometimes you need a damn addiction dealing with people!” he told me when I asked him what he thought about others linking the presence of unhoused or addicted people on the CTA to a rise in crime. “If you’re really depressed, you want something to take the pain away. ‘Pain’—that’s my nickname. My best friend named me that years ago, back in Englewood. It meant I could take some pain. It take a lot to live on this train for six months.”

My stop was Lake. As we neared it, I asked Tracy what public safety measures he needed to be safe on the CTA. His answer surprised me. It didn’t include more police, arrests, or cameras.

“The people need jobs!” Tracy exclaimed. “Don’t get no job, you gon’ see more evil. And it ain’t just Black people; it’s all people. If they don’t start hiring these people, man, it’s gonna get worser. I see young girls walk through here selling drugs. They ain’t got no job. They got nowhere else to turn.”

“There’s an irony in the public discourse around public safety,” Doug Schenkelberg, executive director of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, said to me over the phone. It was March 28, one week before a mayoral election largely defined, in both local and national media, as a referendum on whether or not Chicagoans felt safe. 

“It’s framed—often within the media and particularly in relation to CTA—that the folks who are unsafe are the housed people using the CTA, and that their safety is threatened by the presence of people experiencing homelessness,” Schenkelberg continued. He and I spoke for almost an hour, and what follows is part of that conversation, lightly edited.

Doug Schenkelberg: Many folks are uncomfortable when they get on the el and they see someone they assume might be homeless. Many people, unfortunately, make a leap to thinking they’re unsafe, or their safety is compromised by their presence. But that’s what pushes us toward criminalization of folks experiencing homelessness and treating them as people who are doing something that’s against the law, or potentially are more apt to do something against the law—conflating discomfort with being safe.

If you’re someone who is unsheltered, you seek out whatever is the safest situation you can find. That safety is about protecting yourself from the elements. It’s about being able to protect things you have. It’s about having some form of community that provides a feeling of safety, and CTA provides them with that.

On the CTA, who is the “public” in public safety?

I think that the common framing of it is the public is folks who are housed. Folks who are using the el to commute from home to work or home to an event, not people who are using it for temporary shelter.

There’s an idea that people experiencing homelessness and people that are maybe engaging in acts that are violent or constitute a crime are one and the same. But the reality is, the folks who are homeless are on the CTA because they’re seeking safety. 

What, or who, is this discourse trying to keep a certain public safe from?

I think the reality is that race is a huge factor. Folks experiencing homelessness are predominantly Black and Brown.

The other factor is being confronted with poverty, being confronted with the failings of our society.

People who are visibly mentally ill, it shows the fault lines in our system. 

There’s a tendency to want a quick solution. And that quick solution is about getting the problem out of the line of sight. The solution is for the person that feels uncomfortable. It’s not a solution for the person experiencing homelessness.

The fundamental issue driving homelessness isn’t going to be solved with more cops. Our mantra has been that we need a dedicated revenue stream like Bring Chicago Home. What’s it like to have a system that’s actually adequately funded and that you know is going to be adequately funded year after year? That’s a very different dynamic to addressing the problem than the way that we do it now.

What we hope for, with any administration, is that the focus is on people whose safety is really at risk. And those are the people experiencing homelessness. Resources and solutions have to be directed toward them: that’s permanent housing; that’s supportive services. Long term, that is a much better, smarter strategy, and a better investment for the city, than criminalizing people who are unhoused.

a K-9 unit officer and dog step onto a CTA el train at the Howard station
A TransitCenter study found that “The overreliance on police for routine safety issues often makes riders less safe, as police response to ‘code of conduct’ issues like putting feet on seats, eating food, or not paying the fare is consistently discriminatory against Black and brown riders and regularly escalates into incidents of brutality.” Credit: Kirk Williamson for Chicago Reader

Five days after meeting Tracy, I ran into him again, on the same day news broke that Kevin Powell, a 54-year-old Chicagoan who relied on the CTA for shelter, was beaten to death by a CTA employee. Tracy and I were both at the Jackson Red Line stop; I boarded the train with him and rode to Roosevelt so we could catch up.

Tracy was distracted and sad. A friend of his had just passed away, someone who went to the same soup kitchen as him. On the Roosevelt platform, we walked near a group of Black friends in their late teens and early 20s. While I was recording, Tracy suddenly called out to them. “Hey, y’all want an apartment? Talk to her, man, she’ll hook you up.” I explained that I didn’t have an apartment connection, but that I was a reporter working on a story about public safety on the CTA. 

“Basically, everyone is gonna die on the mothafuckin’ train!” the only woman in the group said to me, sounding exasperated. “People getting robbed, shot, killed, all that.” As she and I began talking, some of the young men began to interrupt excitedly, vying for her attention and my microphone. 

“His ass live on the train,” one said and tilted his head to Tracy. “Why you talking to a bum?” Tracy tried to join in. “I was talkin’ to you first,” he interjected over their voices. “Can I tell you a story? It’s so funny.”

“What’s funny, your BO?” replied one of the guys. A few others laughed. Tracy is with me, I said. It’s important to interview people who sleep on the trains, too. “That’s who’s gonna attack your dumb ass!” one of the guys shot back. The rest of the group yelled at him to shut up, assuring me that their friend didn’t mean it. I didn’t mind, but everyone was talking at once. 

This group conversation is good, I said, but can we take turns? A couple of the guys laughed, and for a minute or two, everyone settled down to talk. I tried to include Tracy, circling at the edge, but he was still smarting from the comment about his smell. “You’re homeless too,” he muttered at the young man who said it. The man shot toward Tracy. “Fuck you, bro, what the fuck you talkin’ about! My momma have her own crib!” Pandemonium ensued as his friends started yelling too, most trying to get him to leave it be. 

“I’m just messing with you like you messed with me!” said Tracy, edging away. “I’ll beat your ass!” shouted the young man, but he stopped moving closer. “We do NOT condone violence,” said one of his friends while looking at me. “We all just from Cabrini-Green.” A couple laughed. C’mon, I said. He wasn’t hurting you. Someone who is homeless isn’t necessarily hurting you, right? “No, no,” said the young woman, nodding in agreement. They’re just on the train. “His stench hurts me!” said the young man, still agitated, but less so. 

“See, this is a prime example,” said one of his friends, “of the shit that just happens on the CTA. That was just ignorance.” You just wait for the summertime, they all assured me: it always gets worse then. Some of them had been jumped on the train; another knew a woman who had been sexually assaulted. And yet, they rode the train, just for something to do.

“We don’t, we don’t intend to hurt anyone,” said the young man now, earnestly and a little sheepish. Now that he was calm, he stood closer to me. He looked barely over 18. “We don’t wake up with bad intentions. Just trying to survive in this cold, cold world with these cold, cold niggas.” We talked a little longer. Before they boarded the next train toward Howard, I gave a few my card and said goodbye. After the train pulled away, I tried to find Tracy, but he had disappeared.