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  • ‘RIDE OF DESPAIR’ Inside NYC’s post-Covid subway crisis & how Guardian Angels have turned from confronting gangs to helping mentally ill

‘RIDE OF DESPAIR’ Inside NYC’s post-Covid subway crisis & how Guardian Angels have turned from confronting gangs to helping mentally ill

THE NYC subway has gone from battlegrounds in gang turf wars to the land of the forgotten homeless, addicts and those battling mental illness.

For more than 40 years, the citizen crime-watch group Guardian Angels has patrolled the city’s subway every night from around 6pm to 3am in their distinct red berets and jackets in a bid to reduce crime and make people feel safer.

Founder of the Guardian Angels Curtis Sliwa told The US Sun that from about 1979 to 1992 the subways were considered part of a gang’s turf.

And in the late ’70s through the early ’90s, the Guardian Angels had a reputation for going fisticuffs with criminals.

But their role has morphed into one similar to social work as the source of crime shifted from gang wars to homeless EDPs (Emotionally Disturbed Persons), especially since the pandemic.

“Now the issues have become EDPs and the homeless after (former) Mayor Bill DeBlasio took office and this became a large issue during the pandemic. 

“The hospitals were overrun after Covid hit and they needed the beds during the lockdown, so people with psychiatric issues were discharged onto the streets and they were never brought back.”

The Sun followed Sliwa and the Angels through the subways for four hours Thursday night to see the challenges they face.

It started with Sliwa helping a drunk man who was too close to the tracks and then throwing up in the subway car.

As he cleaned him up, gave him water and calmed him down, another man ran into the subway car, twirled around a pole and sat down.

He admitted to being strung out on Xanax and crystal meth and Sliwa talked to him and encouraged him to get help.

After escorting the drunk man to police for medical attention at the last stop, Sliwa switched lines to the 4 train.

While the train rested at the last stop in the Bronx, a homeless man, who was smoking crack, told Sliwa that he’s been riding the train back and forth from Brooklyn to the Bronx.

On the southbound 6 train, a man with fresh needle injection marks continously grabbed at the air and appeared to be hallucinating.

A man with severe anxiety, who Sliwa helped before, was in tears as he spoke to the Guardian Angels’ founder and hugged him.

On the southbound 4 train, a homeless 74-year-old woman, who still had IV bandages on from her Covid hospital stay, slept on a bench.

She claimed she had been robbed of $400, her ID and one of her two rolling bags that contained her entire livelihood.

These were just a few of the dozens of homeless emotionally disturbed persons (EDP) who Sliwa and the Guardian Angels interacted with Thursday night.

“This is a typical night,” Sliwa said. “It’s a ride of despair. The subway just attracts everything. It’s the underbelly of the city.

“It physically attacks your senses. Urine, vomit, defecation is all over the cars. You need a bulletproof condom bodysuit just to get to work.”


Crime on the subways skyrocketed during the first three months of 2022, which coincides with people returning to work as the number of Covid cases decline.

At one point in early February, crime was up over 200 percent compared to last year, according to NYPD statistics.

Now it’s up 104.3 percent, with 467 transit crimes reported as compared to 259 at this time last year.

Newly elected Mayor Eric Adams, who’s a former NYPD lieutenant and beat Sliwa in the general election, announced a crackdown on crime in the subways.

The NYPD said in an emailed statement that they’ve added “station inspections” to “create an omnipresence that riders, at all hours, can see and feel as they make their way to school, work, or home”.

That includes over 1,000 extra officers strategically placed at stations and lines where there are a higher number of riders and reports of crime, the NYPD said.

During the four hours Thursday night, officers in pairs were seen on the platforms at some stations; mostly in the south Bronx, which Sliwa said he’s seen the worst crimes.

“These are mammoth stations,” said Sliwa, referring south Bronx stations like Fordham Road.

“If you’re in this maze and someone attacks you, no one is going to see you or hear you,” he said.

“You might as well put a message in a bottle and throw it in the river. You’re just as likely to get help.”


That’s where the Guardian Angels said they’re trying to fill the void.

Some were bilingual and helped communicate with Hispanic people who were sleeping in the cars or spaced out on the platform and appeared to need help, and one had a medical kit and medical gear.

They marched from subway car to subway car checking on anyone who appeared to be in distress.

The group started in 1979 as the “Rock Brigade” to clean up crime-ridden Fordham Road and the subways, has since evolved and grown to about 300 members.

Over the years, they’ve been heralded by some and given civic awards while others have condemned them as vigilante.

The Guardian Angels’ presence was greeted by some riders who thanked them, gave them hugs and asked for photos.

“I think there’s a level of comfort when people see us,” Sliwa said. “They know we’re here to help.”


Sliwa crouched to come eye-to-eye with a homeless woman sleeping on a subway bench with a bag containing her livelihood at her side.

She said her name was Mary Reeves. She’s 74 years old, just out of the hospital after being treated for Covid and was robbed of $400, her ID and one of her bags while on the 4 train.

She was far from her Atlanta home, complained of stomach pains and was crying, depressed and in mental anguish.

“She’s an easy target,” Sliwa said. “And everything that happens to her will never be reported.

“And that’s typical. Women are groped and subjected to pervs, there are robberies and assaults, and the victims walk off the train and never report it because they think nothing will be done.”

Sliwa alerted two conductors to the Reeves’ situation and asked to call for medics to meet them at a station.

The first attempt was ignored; the second delayed the train, which angered riders and exacerabated the situation.

The Guardian Angels split up. Some stayed with Reeves and some continued to go from car to car.

They searched for police at each station. Several stops later, they found two officers who they flagged down.

The officers helped Reeves and called the Bowery Residents’ Committee (BRC), which NYC contracts with to provide shelters and outreach services.

One of the officers called for help, but it would take more than an hour for someone from the BRC to get to the subway stop.

As the officers sorted out how to help Reeves, the train was stopped and passengers yelled for the train to move.

“Let’s go. I have to get to work,” one rider yelled.

“If we didn’t take her off the train, she would’ve been eaten alive,” Sliwa said.

Instead of making her wait, the Guardian Angels personally escorted her to a shelter on 33rd Street in Manhattan.

They helped her walk, carried her belongings and held the subway doors as they jumped from line to line to get Reeves from the Bronx to the shelter.

“This is every night,” Sliwa said. “Things need to change.”


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