No-bench Pledge for Tel Aviv's Light Rail Hides a Warning for the Homeless

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A homeless man sleeps on a park bench in Tel Aviv, last year.

Back in February, a Twitter user took a picture of the 23rd Street subway station in New York, showing a platform without benches. He tagged the official account of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, and received a reply about 20 minutes later from the agency’s customer support account: “Benches were removed from stations to prevent the homeless from sleeping on them.” Plain and simple.

This unambiguous response, which revealed a well-concealed policy, provoked anger. Hundreds of Twitter users flooded @NYCTSubway with comments protesting what they called the agency’s evil and cruelty toward homeless people as well as its disregard for the comfort of people with disabilities who may be affected by the policy. In a statement to the Business Insider website, an MTA spokesperson said, “The tweet was posted in error and it has since been removed. The subway is not a substitute for a shelter and homeless New Yorkers deserve much better care.”

A recent item on the Israeli weekly TV news show “Ulpan Shishi” consisted of a puff piece on the Tel Aviv Metropolitan area mass transit system, known as the light rail for its main component. Amid the smiles and jokes, a peek at a trip abroad the train and an explanation of Israel’s transportation vision, Haim Glick – the CEO of the company that is building the system, NTA – showed journalist Yigal Mosko all the innovations: 45 trains, the ability to detonate a suspected bomb at a facility within the station without stopping train service, full air conditioning, no noise.

And then he added excitedly, “There are no benches here. You’re asking? There are no benches.”

“Why?” Mosko asked. And Glick replied, “because the transit rate here is so rapid that I don’t want people to sit here. Every three-and-a-half minutes a train comes through. In general, the idea here is, if you missed an above-ground train, don’t run. Don’t run. Nothing bad will happen. Wait above ground a few more minutes, it will come.”

But is this the real reason for the lack of benches, or did New York’s MTA serve as the inspiration for a cruel vision – getting rid of benches for fear that homeless people will sit or sleep on them?

For the past decade, the benches that Tel Aviv has installed on its sidewalks and boulevards have been partitioned, in order to prevent homeless people from stretching out on them. While the government ignores the problem and refuses to address the issue in a meaningful way, homeless people are persecuted in the public sphere and the authorities are making their lives miserable.

Eliminating benches from light rail stations epitomizes cruelty to homeless people, while also harming members of other disadvantaged populations, including people with disabilities and older people. I raised the issue on Twitter, and Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli responded a few hours later.

“Of course there will be benches at light rail stations,” she said. “I spoke with NTA’s CEO this evening, and he explained his statement about benches in train stations. No project, however large, can be of benefit to the public without ensuring the basic needs of seating, shade and accessibility. There will be benches in both the above-ground and the underground stations, there will be accessibility and there will also be shade.”

Michaeli’s comforting tweet was meant to whitewash Glick’s shameful statement, but it still leaves some open questions. How many benches does NTA plan to offer the public? And will it adopt Tel Aviv’s practice of deliberately partitioning them to keep homeless people away?

It should be borne in mind that neither removing benches from our landscape nor installing benches that people can’t lie down on will cause homeless people to disappear.

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