CHICAGO — When Max Merkow steps onto the train for his morning commute, most days he’s hit with clouds of weed and cigarette smoke.
“People have gotten more ballsy as of late,” said Merkow, who rides the Red and Blue lines. “Smoking on the trains is a daily occurrence. Especially in the last few months, it’s gotten absolutely rampant.”
Merkow isn’t the only one noticing. Riders across the city have lit up social media in recent weeks complaining about conditions on public transit, including smoking, littering, urination, public defecation and unruly behavior.
On a recent weekday at the Jackson Boulevard stop, human waste was splattered on a wall. Empty beer cans littered the tunnel. On a Red Line train stopping there, a drug deal took place openly.
Complaints about bad behavior have climbed since the start of the pandemic, a trend impacting transit systems around the country, CTA officials said. Ridership is down 50 percent.
“Unfortunately, during this time we have seen some increased incidents of misbehavior, such as smoking on railcars, which is largely attributable to fewer riders taking the system,” CTA officials said in a statement. “This in turn leaves some people to feel a little more emboldened to break the rules.”
The situation also has gotten worse for CTA employees, who say they are routinely threatened on the job and don’t feel they have enough resources to enforce rules and keep themselves and passengers safe. Crime on trains more than doubled in 2020 compared to 2019, according to the The Tribune, and attacks on operators have risen.
Alongside issues of safety, advocates say the housing crisis exacerbated by the pandemic is forcing more people to seek shelter on trains.
CTA officials said they haven’t scaled back cleaning regimens and have worked with police to respond to “hot spots.” They also hired a company to provide unarmed security, officials said.
But some worry the added security will lead to overpolicing a public amenity, and one contracted guard said they have little recourse to handle a combative rider.
And despite the added security, problems persist.
“I don’t really remember people smoking on the train before, and now I’d say more often than not, someone is smoking,” said Molly Lamping Fleck, who commutes to Bronzeville on the Green Line. “I don’t like smelling like smoke or weed by the time I get to my office, or on the way home picking up my kid from day care. I just wish people would stop.”
‘They know we can’t arrest them. So they don’t care.’
In June 2021, the CTA inked a $3 million contract with private security company Monterrey Security to promote their rules and address rider concerns of bad behavior.
Procurement records show the agency and Monterrey agreed to a nine-month ‘emergency contract’ to provide “unarmed security guard services (at) CTA rail stations.” Payment records show the CTA has paid Monterrey about $900,000 through February.
The CTA said it will not share how many unarmed security officers it has hired or its deployment strategies because of “security purposes.” But riders said they’ve noticed more of the guards with neon vests monitoring the cars.
“It’s just strange to see such a large presence very suddenly,” said Kyle Lucas, co-founder of local public transit advocacy group Better Streets Chicago. “I hadn’t seen any of them. And suddenly they were just everywhere.”
Monterrey, one of the largest private security firms in the city, is politically connected, winning large no-bid contracts and often hiring top-ranking Chicago officers for post-retirement jobs, the Sun-Times has reported.
A Monterrey guard stationed at the Jackson stop last week told Block Club he was hired two months ago and he feels “basically defenseless.”
In his first week on the job, the guard said he responded to the Clark and Lake station to deescalate an altercation between three riders who had pulled a weapon on a CTA worker and a child.
“If someone attacks us, we have nothing to defend ourselves, and by the time the police get here, we’ll be dead. It’s very rough,” said the guard, who did not want to be named for fear of retaliation. “I’m getting out of the CTA, most definitely. Because dealing with people, it’s doing too much.”
The guard said riders often smoke marijuana in his face, creating situations where he can’t engage them beyond a cordial ask to put it out and a call to the police if necessary.
“People are always smoking. They know the rules, they see the signs. But they know we’re not the police,” the guard said. “They know we can’t arrest them. So they don’t care.”
Some CTA workers also said deteriorating conditions routinely put them in danger and they don’t feel they have enough support to enforce rules.
A booth worker, who asked to remain anonymous because he is not authorized to speak to news media, said he is threatened at least twice a week.
“They say, ‘I’m going to kill you,’ ‘I’m going to shoot you,’ ‘I’m going to stab you.’ All the time,” said the employee, who has been with CTA for over 20 years. “I’m leaving in a few years, but the way things are set up right now, I don’t know if I will get out of here alive. That’s just how bad it is.”
The booth worker said he has filed up to 25 reports of incidents at his stop, from stabbings on the platforms and groups jumping on the train to people smoking and skipping fares. Officials did not respond to any of them, he said.
“You’re out here on an island all by yourself. That’s how you feel,” he said. “I used to really like my job. I absolutely hate it now. I hate it. Because we have no control. As soon as you say something, there’s no accountability.”
Both CTA workers said they need backup: increased surveillance and armed patrol on platforms. The booth worker said more policing is not an ideal solution, but “drastic times call for drastic measures.”
“They have to let people know that they’re actually trying to do something. There has to be a physical presence of somebody out here to deter this,” he said. “There is no policing, there is no nothing. You’re asking us a lot of times to put ourselves in harm’s way.”
Others are questioning whether the CTA’s strategy of working with police and private security will be effective.
Audrey Wennink, director of transportation for the Metropolitan Planning Council, a Chicago-based transit policy and advocacy organization, said the group has discussed safety issues with CTA and other transit groups. Wennick said many are wary of armed police due to concerns about aggressive policing and racial bias.
“We’re now seeing the level of increase of unarmed security guards, and whether that’s enough to give people a sense of presence,” Wennink said. “We need to manage that with not over-policing, or causing fear that there will be any violence against riders.”
Lucas also questioned how effective the guards could be.
“I don’t think private security is a permanent solution,” Lucas said. “The biggest thing is that it’s not accountable to anybody. We can’t confirm what kind of training programs Monterrey security is proving their employees.”
Wennink said she suggested the CTA adopt a transit ambassadors system similar to one on San Francisco Bay Area’s BART system.
The pilot program deploys uniformed, unarmed civilians with training in conflict resolution onto trains to address issues of mental health, homelessness and substance abuse, proactively defusing situations before they could potentially turn violent. In more than 12,000 “educational interactions” with riders in the program’s first year, a police officer was only called 132 times, according to a BART officials.
The CTA said the Transit Ambassadors program is a model they “continue to look at.” CTA conductors once served a similar role on trains, but those jobs were eliminated in 1998 due to budget cuts.
The CTA as a ‘moving shelter system’
Unhoused people seeking refuge on trains is not new, but advocates say it’s become more common as the need for affordable housing skyrockets during the pandemic.
Doug Schenkelberg, executive director for the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, said the situation has forced more riders to use the CTA as a “moving shelter system.” Shelter decompression for social distancing, a lack of overnight warming shelters in the winter and increased identification requirements at private spaces like coffee shops are leaving people with fewer options, Schenkelberg said.
Asked if homelessness contributes to rising complaints on the train, CTA officials said the agency “recognizes that homelessness, which is a larger societal issue, can sometimes impact the customer experience on trains and buses. The CTA is committed to addressing the issue in a compassionate and respectful way.”
Last year, the Chicago Department of Public Health partnered with The Night Ministry, a social services organization, for a two-year program to help unhoused people during the nighttime hours.
Volunteers and social workers go once a week to the end stops of the Blue and Red lines to provide medical services, food assistance and case management services, with the goal of helping people on the train find permanent supportive housing.
Burke Patton, communications manager at The Night Ministry, said efforts on the platforms are coordinated with the assistance of CTA.
“I feel that the CTA is taking steps to help its riders. I think their actions have demonstrated they care about this segment of their ridership,” Patton said. “There definitely could be more social service providers. The need for service is great. The Night Ministry can only do so much.”
Wennink said that transit systems have been historically underfunded and “conditions on the CTA seem not as good as pre-COVID.”
“We’re at a very critical point, where people are going to be coming back to work and commuting a bit more,” Wennink said. “We want them to have a good experience on transit, and we want to have a healthy transit system. This is all part of it.”
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