How two homeless men in New Jersey became our “eyes on the street.”

On Sunday night, two men retrieved a bookbag from a trashcan near the train station in Elizabeth, thinking it contained something of value. After carrying the bag for about 1,000 feet, they found it was too heavy to carry further, and decided to investigate its contents. Finding “wires and a pipe” inside, they contacted Elizabeth’s police force, which turned the investigation over to the county’s bomb squad and soon the FBI. Further investigation by robots revealed that the bag contained five bombs, one of which was accidentally detonated by one of the robots during an effort to defuse the bomb.

The fact that the two men were homeless is an important detail that should not be overlooked, given that homeless people are often stigmatized and criminalized for being in public places like train stations and parks. In this case, they were the “eyes on the street,” a notion about urban safety that was pioneered by the urbanist Jane Jacobs. Although she was mostly talking about neighbors and passersby, there is no reason why the notion cannot be expanded to include homeless people, who are often present and alert in public spaces and at the times of day when few else are around, such as non-peak commuting hours in New Jersey.

Over the past year, New Jersey saw its rate of homelessness drop, according to the state’s annual count conducted at the beginning of 2016. However, the number of those who lived on the street and in other public places, like train stations, rose by 48 percent. Given the civic actions of the two, as-yet unnamed homeless individuals who prevented the detonation of five bombs and a possible train derailment, perhaps the state could begin to look at its homeless population in a new light.