MIDTOWN — Homeless advocates marched on Grand Central Terminal Tuesday night to
protest the removal of benches from the station.
Advocates charge the Metropolitan Transportation Authority ripped out half a dozen large chairs in the terminal’s lower-level dining course in an effort to deny homeless people a place to sleep.
“All too often, instead of an overflow for diners and instead of a resting place for commuters, homeless people took refuge because it was comfortable,” said Jean Rice, 72, a homeless man who volunteers with the advocacy group Picture the Homeless and said he's frequented the station for two decades.
Rice was among several dozen protesters who gathered Tuesday night in opposition to the move.
“Grand Central, just be fair! All we want is to use a chair,” he and others chanted, as they marched inside the terminal, handing out fliers proclaiming their right to sleep at the station.
Employees working in the dining concourse said they'd heard numerous complaints from diners and restaurant managers about the number of homeless people prior to the change.
But MTA officials say the removal of the seating had nothing to do with driving homeless people out of the space. Spokesman Aaron Donovan said the change was actually an effort to better balance the need for seating with the crush of pedestrian traffic during the terminal’s busiest hours.
“Earlier this month, we removed about a half dozen single-person chairs in an effort to improve pedestrian circulation,” Donovan said in a statement, adding that staff are currently evaluating whether to restore the chairs, or possibly add a new seating to the terminal’s lower level.
In April, the MTA said it was removing several wooden benches from the 207th Street A train station in an effort to curb homeless people from loitering at the last stop on the line in Upper Manhattan.
Benches reappeared a week later after straphangers and local officials voiced concerns that elderly people, pregnant women and people with mobility issues would have no place to rest while waiting for trains.
The most recent dispute comes as complaints about homelessness in Midtown are on the rise.
According to a study published in April, the shelter population is now larger than at any time since record keeping began, with 113,553 homeless people sleeping in city shelters in 2010, up 37 percent from 2002.