Homeless to remain in Newark Penn Station during Super Bowl week

By Mike Frassinelli/The Star-Ledger
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on January 28, 2014

Michele Walsh, NJ Transit program coordinator, talks with Keith Rossi inside Newark's Penn Station. Walsh helped Rossi end his 20 years living on the street. He now lives in Montclair and visits homeless friends at Penn Station.


He wears his laminated bus ticket around his neck with a lanyard, a fashion accessory that keeps the cops at bay.

Signs above the benches at Newark Penn Station declare that they are for "ticketed passengers only," but Kenny Curry and the homeless who inhabit New Jersey’s busiest transit hub know most train and bus tickets have no expiration date and one stub can stretch for years.

Curry said he understands "to a small degree" why police would want to keep the homeless out of Newark Penn Station today, when visitors from around the world are in Newark for Super Bowl "Media Day" and New Jersey is trying to put on a good face.

"If you are traveling, you’re from another state or something, on vacation or whatever, you wouldn’t want to come into an area where you’re going to feel uncomfortable," he said.

During the Summer Olympics in Atlanta and the Democratic National Convention in New York City in the 1990s, the homeless largely disappeared from view.

Officials from the NJ Transit Police Department, National Football League and City of Newark say there are no plans to sweep the homeless from train stations or other visible locations.

"It really is a difficult issue, the balance between the rights of the commuters against the rights of folks that find themselves in bad social situations — and to make sure we’re being fair to both groups," NJ Transit Police Chief Chris Trucillo said.

He said as long as the homeless don’t bother people for money or stretch across the seats, they have a right to stay in the public space.

"My charge to my officers is that people cannot just splay themselves out on a bench or take up space and panhandle customers who need to traverse that building to get to and from work," Trucillo said. "So we try again to strike that balance in a compassionate way."

Newark Mayor Luis A. Quintana wants to put the city’s best face forward on Media Day, but said the city doesn’t plan to conduct sweeps to clear the homeless from Newark Penn Station or other high traffic spots.

"We are an urban setting, and urban settings have these issues," he said.

However, Quintana said he will consider setting up a television at a local shelter so down-and-out residents can view the events at the Prudential Center and feel part of the historic day.

"They’re part of our community, they’re part of what we are," he said.

Curry and Dale Davis aren’t so sure they are welcome to stay at Newark Penn Station during Super Bowl week.

"They vowed to kick us out of there," said Curry, 54. "We’re not gonna be allowed to sit in there."

"I was in New York (Thursday) and the police were going around giving out fliers to all the homeless people in New York that specifically stated to stay out of both Penn Stations," said Davis, 36. "They don’t want no homeless anywhere near New Jersey Penn Station or New York Penn Station all (this) week."

Curry has slept many a night outside Newark Penn Station, and on Friday he was asked if he had a place to sleep that night.

"Yes, Curry replied.

"After tonight," he elaborated, "it’s a toss-up."

A transit ticket without an expiration date is a ticket to entry inside Newark Penn Station, where it is warm and safe and some homeless people have stayed for 20 years.

The train station is their hotel, the bathroom sink their shower.

On Friday, one man was trimming his mustache with scissors in the bathroom. One sink, over another guy, holding his life’s belongings in a bag, cleaned off his coat.

Outside, a man sold Newport cigarettes for 50 cents apiece.

Millie Jean-Philips sat on a waiting room bench. She said she has been homeless for three months. Her right eye was watering. The two blankets she used to cover herself when she slept on the floor were stolen, and she was worn down from life.

"Two days with no eat," Jean-Philips said.

She said she didn’t want to be there, but had nowhere else to go.

"No family, nobody. Only God."

Michele Walsh, NJ Transit’s community intervention specialist, was trying to find Jean-Philips housing that night.

Walsh was brought on by NJ Transit Executive Director Jim Weinstein, then-Newark Mayor Cory Booker and the Mental Health Association of Essex County to help the homeless at Newark Penn Station.

She talks to the homeless with compassion and finds them permanent housing, provides access to medical care and helps them get birth certificates and Social Security cards. NJ Transit recently brought on a part-timer to supplement the work Walsh does.

As it turns out, the days leading up to the Super Bowl in New Jersey are also the days of the "point in time" count of the homeless, an annual demographics survey that is forwarded to HUD and helps determine how much funding a county gets.

NFL executive vice president Eric Grubman, a New Jersey native, said nothing extra is being asked of police regarding the homeless at Newark Penn Station.

"They will do what they normally do and they will have resources available as they normally have," he said. "They may have more resources available if it’s particularly cold or if it’s particularly crowded. But that’s their job, and we expect people to be both respectful and sympathetic."

Walsh said that for visitors from the cities of the two Super Bowl teams, Seattle and Denver, seeing homeless people will be nothing new.

"I went to Seattle last winter, my husband’s a huge Seahawks fan, that’s actually why we went, and I was thinking there are so many homeless people in Seattle — triple this," she said. "It’s a problem everywhere."

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