When politicians and media pundits talk about public safety, what do they mean? Safety for whom, and from what? Katie Prout’s essay implores readers in Chicago to see unhoused people living on the city’s trains as vulnerable members of the public, not as threats. She also urges readers to acknowledge the difference between safety and emotional comfort:

To my knowledge, no evidence exists that shows unhoused CTA riders are more likely to commit crime or exhibit “unruly behavior” (whatever that is) than their housed counterparts, and yet this narrative linking the presence of unhoused people to dangers and discomforts for housed riders has been repeated over the last couple years: “CTA is developing plans with social service agencies to address issues of mental health and homelessness that also affect safety on trains and buses,” reported WTTW after the memo’s release; “Enhance safety for riders by expanding police officer patrols with the Chicago Police Department, increase the number of security guards from 200 to 300, reintroduce canine units, target fare theft with new tall fare gates and collaborate with social services organizations for unhoused people,” reported the Sun-Times

[The CTA is] . . . a big, crashing mess at the moment, with the tubes filthy and stained with graffiti, elevators and escalators out of operation, cars converted into rolling homeless shelters, rules about eating and smoking seemingly forgotten, and police presence all but invisible,” wrote Crain’s Chicago Business’s Greg Hinz in 2021, with the cadence and restraint of Peter Venkman terrifying the mayor in Ghostbusters. In the accompanying photo, taken by Hinz, a Chicagoan is curled up across four seats, huddled under a dirty jacket. “People just aren’t going to ride a system that is dirty, dark and scary,” he continued. “Are you listening, Mayor Lori Lightfoot?” A quick Google search of “Chicago CTA homeless” pulls up other photos of people — asleep, unconscious, and presumably unconsenting to being the example of all that is “dirty, dark, and scary” — in stories from CBS News, ABC7, WBEZ, Medill, and the Chicago Defender, among others. 

Not every person who is homeless is mentally ill or uses drugs, and having one of those traits — or all three — doesn’t make you dangerous; it makes you vulnerable. Indeed, study after study demonstrates that people without homes are far more likely to be victims of violent crime than they are to commit it.