The Truth Behind Underground Living in NYC

Rumors regarding underground cities beneath New York City  have circulated for decades. For years, people attempted to discover the alleged hidden cities where thousands of people who are homeless are said to reside. The reality is that  homelessness in New York is not the thrill that these stories make it out to be.

You may have heard legendary tales of the elusive “mole people” living underground in New York City. There are popular myths surrounding this, with stories consisting of thousands of people without homes creating cities beneath the subway system. These stories, largely created around false realities, romanticize the plights that the homeless population face. Published works describe the “underground cities” including widely popular books and essays focusing on the “mole people” of New York. Many writers faced criticism for their exaggerated estimates of the population, inconsistencies in the information, and the description of locations that could simply not exist. So before you watch a YouTube video of a self-proclaimed dare-devil exploring the subways of New York City trying to find the hidden city of the houseless, consider the reality.

The mole people stories are grounded in a very real story of people in New York City struggling in the 1970s and 1980s to find adequate shelter. When the Riverside Tunnel was closed by Amtrak in 1980, it became a location for the houseless to find shelter. It is true that at least 50 people resided here and built shanty towns which are areas populated by crude dwellings like tents. This tunnel became a safe haven for many people experiencing homelessness who found shelter and companionship. Graffiti art by a man named Chris “Freedom” Pape and the security felt by its residents earned it the nickname “The Freedom Tunnel.” In 1991 Amtrak decided to reactivate the Riverside Tunnel, evicting 50 people and providing them with vouchers for temporary housing. However, shelters were underfunded and the city’s efforts to remove people experiencing homelessness from the streets forced many to return to the tunnel. By 1994, those remaining received more vouchers and most of them found permanent housing.

The era of large numbers of people living underground is said to be over today. Only  few choose to find shelter in the subway tunnels due to the dangerous conditions. The Coalition for the Homeless makes it clear that most of the population experiencing homelessness in New York City today chooses to sleep in shelters. The majority of those unsheltered sleep on the street or in public spaces. As of October of 2021, there was an average of 48,723 people sleeping in a shelter each night in the city. 

Many people are drawn to the narrative regarding the “mole people” in underground New York due to the mysterious tales and romanticized depictions of homelessness. However, the reality is not so captivating or exciting for those who live it. The spread of misinformation and dramatized tales provides no benefit for those who are struggling with this very issue. Rather than chasing a mythical fable of “mole people” we should be chasing the solutions to provide housing to every individual who has slept on the street or in a shelter in New York City


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