Some homeless on 'continuous' ride despite CTA policy to contrary

Julias Smith, 56, used to be employed as a plumber and an electrician. Now he is homeless and has diabetes and is HIV positive.

Like other homeless people in Chicago, Smith uses CTA trains and hubs to keep warm when the weather turns bitter cold.


The practice, however, is one the Chicago Transit Authority wants to end. 

Officials are enforcing a policy requiring riders upon reaching a hub to exit the station and purchase a new ticket before continuing their journey in the direction from which they arrived.


Public transit officials say the policy is about fairness. Critics of the policy, including the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, say it is being enforced at a time when the recession combined with the closure of homeless shelters leaves many people with few options to stay warm.


It is estimated that some 6,500 people in Chicago are homeless. Most seek refuge in shelters or take their chances on the streets, homeless advocates say.


It is unclear how many homeless people seek out CTA vehicles and hubs for shelter against the elements. CTA officials did not supply information about the numbers of people kicked off trains for violating the continuous riding policy.


CTA officials say the policy, which dates back to 2003,  is being enforced to make sure everyone contributes their fair share to supporting the system.


But homeless people like Rod Hunt, 45, who says he has been tossed from the temperature-controlled trains into the cold night, contends the policy is punitive.


"They only make the homeless people pay; that's discrimination,"  says Hunt, a former word processor from the South Side. He says he's been kicked off trains "10 to 12 times" over the past month, mostly from lines serving Forest Park or O'Hare. 


Without the means to buy his return ticket, Hunt says he often finds himself forced to "stay outside until I have enough money, and then I get back on."


CTA officials, including President Rob Huberman and Carole Brown, the chairwoman of the agency's board of trustees, did not return telephone calls seeking comment on the policy. 


Via e-mail, Katelyn Trall, a CTA spokeswoman, says the agency "does not make a distinction between homeless and any other fare paying customers."


"Continuous riding is considered a theft of CTA service," Trall says. "Passengers are required to pay an additional fare whenever they reach the end of a route and want to continue their travel."


Signs about the CTA continuous riding policy were first posted this fall in hubs along the red and blue lines - the only 24 hour lines on the system, and the lines most used by the homeless community, advocates say.


Trall says the signs are posted "as a customer service reminder to all CTA customers that the payment of fares only entitles them to a one-way ride and/or transfer and all customers must exit the bus or train at the end of the line."


Smith, the ex-plumber and homeless man, sums up the CTA continuous riding policy in two words: "It sucks."


He says the homeless people booted from the CTA trains often find themselves in unfamiliar parts of the city. CTA workers do encourage homeless people to seek help at shelters, but Smith says, "I sleep outside" after being kicked off a train.


"Some people don't feel comfortable in shelters," says Terry Norris, 50, a homeless handyman raised in Evanston and who rides the trains every night. "I stayed in a shelter and I made it through the night, but I'd rather take my chances on the train."


Norris says the shelters "are pretty brutal in Chicago," with robberies and assaults commonplace.

"It's part of the situation people are in - under stress and angry," he says.

Norris says the CTA "should be more lenient towards people in the winter time. This is the time you should be more sympathetic, It's not like we live in L.A. or Florida."

- Associate Editor David McClendon and Reporter Megan Cottrell contributed to this report.


LOU GRANT, 01-05-2009

A nice article, Lucy. It's been covered by Medill, here: and also by 848 (WBEZ) and Gapers Block, here: Your story was different because it had a strong association with the homeless. It took courage to get that viewpoint.

At issue, however, isn't that the transit agency is demanding that riders, homeless or not, exit at the end of the line, but why our social network can't protect these people, mainly men, for a single night.

Who estimates that there are 6,500 homeless each night? How did they come to that figure? How many beds are there and how many are unused, on average, during the worst days last month?

What police records are available about crime in these shelters? What do they say about late night crime on the CTA? I'll assume for a moment that there is more crime in shelters, but is Mr. Norris correct? I'd like to know.

Again, nice job. I look forward to a follow-up.