Amid cold weather and limitations at shelters, homeless people and outreach groups turn to CTA trains

Homeless people sleep on a Blue Line train. (Raphael Hipos/MEDILL)

By Raphael Hipos
Medill Reports

Geraldine Conrad, 75, has been noticing an increase in homeless people sleeping on CTA trains during her daily commute.

Conrad, who lives in Edgewater, rides the Red Line down to the West Loop every day to swim and exercise. She says she regularly sees people asleep early in the morning when she heads to the pool, as well as at night when she goes home.

“They’re quiet.” Conrad said. “You never see their faces. They may not have masks on, but I mean, I feel sorry for them.”

Conrad said while she’s had some unpleasant encounters with homeless people on the CTA before, the sleeping individuals tend not to bother anyone.

She added that seeing people asleep on the trains makes her sad, and she doesn’t agree with people saying they should be forced off the trains.

Every winter, the city of Chicago conducts its Point-in-Time count, which is an assessment of sheltered and unsheltered people experiencing homelessness at one moment in time.

According to the 2021 count, there were 4,477 individuals in the city experiencing homelessness. Of those people, 1,454 of those were unsheltered, or living in the streets. People sleeping on CTA trains were included in that number.

Debbie Shepard, who works as a program manager at Lincoln Park Community Services, says shelters have seen an uptick in people seeking services. She said due to the pandemic, they’ve had to institute a masking and social distancing policy to maintain the safety of people staying at their facilities.

At the shelter where Shepard works, the 20 beds for people who just need a place to sleep overnight are far from enough to accommodate all homeless people in need, she said.

“Does it fill up quickly? Yeah,” Shepard said. “The minute somebody leaves, we notify the city, and there’s someone usually to take that bed.”

James Sullivan, 29, has been homeless for more than half a year, and said he has never stayed in a shelter. Since winter began, he either stays in abandoned houses or on the CTA.  He says he has difficulty navigating the city’s resources and doesn’t know how to get a slot at a shelter.

“It’s a whole lot warmer on the CTA than outside, I can tell you that,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan said while the CTA guards sometimes make homeless people leave the trains between midnight and 4 a.m., they generally treat homeless people with respect.

This was a sentiment shared by Jeremy Rockett, 31. Rockett has been homeless for the past eight months and has been sleeping on the CTA since December.

“They’re cool as no one’s being crazy or silly,” Rockett said.

Jennifer Mosley, a professor at the University of Chicago, said many homeless people opt not to spend the night at shelters because people do not feel safe there.

“Many people who are homeless report that they have had possessions stolen and that fights and assaults are common,” Mosley said. “Some shelters also require people to listen to a Christian prayer service or experience other religious indoctrination before they will house someone.”

Mosley said compared to sleeping outside, CTA trains present a relatively warm and well-policed alternative. She said if the city wanted to address this issue, it could invest in more housing options that allow people to stay behind a door that locks, or that don’t impose additional requirements on individuals such as staying sober.

When reached for comment via email regarding this issue, the CTA said while it acknowledges the customer experience can sometimes be impacted by people sleeping on their trains and buses, it remains committed to confronting the issue in a compassionate way.

Homeless people receive supplies from the Night Ministry during the organization’s weekly outreach at the CTA Blue Line station. (Raphael Hipos/MEDILL)

One Chicago organization that works for homeless people is the Night Ministry, a not-for profit volunteer organization founded in 1976 that seeks to provide aid to individuals struggling with homelessness. Twice a week, it sets up outreach centers on the Red and Blue lines to give aid to people spending the night on the train.

The Night Ministry started performing outreaches to homeless people on the CTA two years ago, shortly before the pandemic began. One of the organization’s members who had experienced homelessness pointed out that large numbers of people were seeking overnight shelter on trains.

Stephan Koruba, a senior nurse practitioner with the Night Ministry who helps coordinate medical care during outreaches, says their program is supported by both the CTA and the Chicago Department of Public Health.

“The CTA helps out in any way they can,” he said. “They’re really great folks, they see the value in our mission.” Koruba added the CDPH currently provides funding for their outreach as part of a two-year pilot project.

Koruba, who has been with the Night Ministry for the past four years, said the pandemic forced shelters to reduce capacity, leading to more homeless people on the streets. He said people who would normally sleep outdoors in parks or other similar locations seek shelter on trains during the winter, where it is relatively warm.

During their outreaches on the Blue and Red lines, the Night Ministry hands out food, warm clothing, hygiene kits and other supplies to homeless people. They also provide medical care and counseling to help people find jobs or longer-term housing.

He also said individuals with mental health issues are not always accepted at shelters, which is why the Night Ministry also offers mental health resources as part of their services during their outreaches.

On the evening of Feb. 3, the Night Ministry had set up a station at the Blue Line’s Forest Park station. Medical students from Loyola University were present to help provide the homeless people with health care. During the winter months, Koruba said 100 to 125 people usually come to the station to avail of their services.

“I think we see the hope in people,” said Koruba as members of his team handed out supplies behind him. “There’s always a possibility for these folks, that they’re going to get their life back and be able to live again.”

Raphael Hipos is a graduate student at Medill, where he specializes in social justice. You can follow him at @RLHipos