Newark Penn Station: Human Misery on Public Display

In 2021 the state of New Jersey had at least 8,000 people experiencing homelessness without a regular place to sleep. By the most recent count, Newark, the largest city in the state, had a consistent homeless population of at least 1,800. But for public transportation users in and around Newark, it may seem that the majority of those people actually reside in Newark’s Penn Station.

While this is obviously an exaggeration, it is difficult to exaggerate the human misery and degradation that moves through Newark Penn Station on a daily basis. Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of people sleep in hallways, alcoves, bus lanes, staircases and corners of the station. A few even sleep a few feet off the ground, on the massive steel girders that support the train trestles above, as cars and buses whizz by on their morning commute, while Amtrak, New Jersey Transit, and PATH trains rumble overhead. Once awakened, the people lean against walls, take up bench space in waiting areas, and wash themselves openly in the public bathrooms. Where else are they supposed to go? Transit police sometimes ask them to move, but for the most part they are simply accepted as part of the station. As one recent visitor to Newark remarked, the station is “a de facto homeless shelter.”

While some optimistic accounts suggested that nighttime closures for pandemic cleaning would give people experiencing homelessness a “fresh start,” the situation around the station seems to have gotten worse than ever this winter. While the popular progressive Mayor Ras Baraka wins compliments for his “innovative” measures to help – appointing a Homelessness Czar, having tiny shelters made out of renovated shipping containers, offering profitable “opportunities” for developers to develop low income housing, even requiring permits for social service groups to feed the homeless and hungry – it is clear that he and the political class of Newark will not and cannot solve the problem.

Their belated attempts to address the human suffering in the city will be in vain, because of the larger capitalist system that will not produce affordable housing unless it can make a good profit for a developer. Newark already had a homeless population even before the last decade of gentrification. As luxury apartments have been built in the downtown area, rents and housing prices will go even higher, which will likely worsen the problem. And while the mayor and his Democratic Party political allies ride high off the campaign contributions from big developers, the working class and the already-homeless of Newark will continue to suffer the consequences.

Small changes to housing and zoning laws aren’t the answer. The very idea that people should have to pay to have access to a human necessity like housing is obscene. As long as that notion is accepted as the norm, people will continue to be forced onto the streets, and the Penn Stations of the world will continue to shelter people experiencing homelessness in the most degrading ways imaginable. The only answer is to build a society based on production and supply for human needs. And that’s never the goal in capitalism.