Lew Rudin, the late, great real-estate mogul who did many wonderful things for New York City, often said his father told him, “Build near a subway.” That should still be excellent advice for those wanting to make a fortune as a developer or business mogul. Subways’ importance to New York’s past and future economic success cannot be overstated.
But for anyone who has recently used the subways or has employees who use them to get to work or simply reads the newspapers, it’s obvious that something is disturbingly different. There has been a significant increase in the number of destitute men living underground.
The Second Avenue subway has been accused of being the most expensive subway in the world. Actually, it is the most expensive homeless shelter in the world. If you don’t think it’s a real problem, you’ve probably been in Florida all winter.
The newspapers have recounted several tragic stories involving some of these men, although it must be pointed out that most don’t pose any real danger. Unfortunately, most are just so destitute, they appear scary. They certainly present the image of a situation out of control. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority chief recently said these men have been scaring people away from using the subways, which hurts the city’s recovery.
It’s more than a problem for the subways: It’s a problem for New York’s future. It’s at a point where “build near a subway” (or even build anywhere) may not be great advice, and our long-term recovery from the pandemic’s doldrums could be in jeopardy.
Can this problem be solved? Of course — if we make a coordinated effort.
Mayor Eric Adams and Gov. Kathy Hochul have announced a renewed effort to deal with it. But this problem needs more than what the government can do. Actually, the government only identifies and refers these men to nonprofits that have the skills to help.
It is those organizations, and one in particular, that can solve this problem — if given the funds. If they don’t get the funds, nothing will change. These men will just be referred and then sent back to the subways.
Some of the men in the subways need intense mental health care, which organizations like Fountain House can provide. The majority, however, can be helped by the approach used by the Doe Fund. The Doe Fund gives them the skills, discipline, training and social support they need to live stable, productive lives.
The Doe Fund has been saving and putting destitute men to work for decades. Instead of letting the subways get disgusting, we can help the Doe Fund train and support most of these destitute men to work to clean the subways. The group has helped almost 30,000 such men become useful contributors by providing them with paid work, transitional housing and support services that include additional treatment.
Most people see the Doe Fund’s “men in blue” uniforms cleaning the streets, but that’s just the start. As someone gets “healthy,” they can “promote” to other jobs, particularly construction and maintenance jobs. A recent study established that Doe’s annual cost per success is 40% less than the cost per exit from the general shelter system. And graduates who were formerly incarcerated are 62% less likely to reenter the criminal-justice system than other parolees.
More than 200 men who experienced homelessness and/or incarceration took center stage Saturday at the iconic Apollo Theater. All have obtained private-sector jobs, housing and sobriety. They join those 30,000 others whose lives the Doe Fund has changed.
Since we have the organizations in place to solve the problem, the only thing needed is money. The state and local governments have provided some of the needed funding, but it’s not enough to complete the job.
So here is the challenge to the private sector’s most successful: If you want to see New York become what it says it is — the greatest city in the world — contact the Doe Fund and make a major tax-deductible donation to support the rescuing of one of these men.
There are about 3,000 of them in the subways. There are about 3,000 New Yorkers who earn more than $10 million per year. There are hundreds of companies in the city with revenues in the billions. With the private sector fully engaged in this effort, we can get back to saying we’re the greatest city in the world. But if the private sector doesn’t help at the scale needed, we will all suffer.
I said that Lew Rudin did many wonderful things for the city. I do want to mention just one: Lew Rudin was one of the original major supporters of George McDonald’s efforts to create the Doe Fund in 1985. Who will come forward now?
Lucius Riccio is a former NYC DOT commissioner and former MTA board member.