Elected officials are blasting the Metropolitan Transportation Authority for not disclosing who at the agency was responsible for monitoring a multi-million-dollar homeless-outreach contract it had with a non-profit that a state audit found actually ignored the homeless.
Last month, State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli released an audit that documented that staffers with the Bowery Residents Committee, which was under contract with the MTA to perform homeless outreach in places like Penn Station and Grand Central Station, were actually spending most of their time behind locked doors in their offices.
The audit covered visits during a four-year period from January 2015 through this past February.
Things Got Worse
Over that period, Transport Workers Union Local 100 members were subject to assault from homeless individuals. At the same time, delays that were related to the homeless continued to climb.
At a press conference following the MTA’s July 24 public meeting, Chairman Patrick Foye told reporters the audit results were “shocking and disappointing,” but did not offer any details about who within his agency failed to flag BRC’s poor performance.
When pressed on the issue, an agency spokesperson declined to answer written questions.
State Senator John C. Liu, a former City Comptroller who is a member of the Committee on Transportation said the public was owed a detailed explanation.
“The lack of transparency is alarming. It’s an affront to TWU Local 100 workers who have been assaulted, MTA riders and to the homeless community, themselves, who were denied needed services,” he said in a statement. “The MTA needs to be accountable immediately.”
City Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez had a similar take.
“As the chairman of the Transportation Committee, I want to continue this conversation with the MTA and have these questions answered as to why these services that were paid for were not provided that were supposed to connect the homeless population with the services they need.”
Mr. Rodriguez was interviewed at Grand Central Station as part of his annual 24-hour “Riders Respond Tour” that he conducts to engage subway riders directly.
He said that he was encouraged because for the first time his marathon outreach was kicked off alongside New York City Transit President Andy Byford.
He said that homelessness in the subway came up and “riders expect that New York City and the MTA” can ensure “the homeless get connected with the services they need outside the train station.”
‘Culture of Lawlessness’
City Council Member I. Daneek Miller, chair of the Civil Service and Labor Committee, said he had participated in MTA overnight homeless-outreach efforts.
“That population is sometimes resistant,” he said. “But there is absolutely more that needs to be done that takes a more holistic approach and addresses what I see as an existing culture underground that people don’t want to speak to: that is, beyond poverty and homelessness, there’s really a culture of lawlessness.”
Mr. Miller said the MTA’s failure to oversee the BRC contract had serious implications for the homeless and the transit workforce. “This is a problem,” he said in a City Hall interview. “Anytime that taxpayer dollars are spent and those services are not being provided at the highest level and workers aren’t being protected...it’s a problem. We need a culture of safety where these services can be administered in a way that every resident deserves, whether they be homeless or living on Park Ave.”
The State Comptroller’s auditors reported they “witnessed numerous instances where outreach workers appeared to intentionally isolate themselves inside the BRC office, unresponsive to clients who came seeking services,” and found “BRC’s standardized reports—and the basis for data analysis and informed outreach decision-making—to be unreliable, as they were based on inaccurate and/or incomplete data.”
‘Are They Being Served?’
The report continued, “Furthermore, the MTA does not have a process in place to verify BRC’s reported data. Without assurance of accurate data, the MTA cannot trust that homeless clients are being served as intended and that outreach is being directed to where it is needed most.”
The state audit documented that BRC’s outreach workers spent on average “about 26 percent of their time (2.2 hours per shift) providing actual outreach services—far less than the expected range of 47 to 59 percent (4-5 hours per shift). In fact, the bulk of outreach workers’ time was spent in the BRC office (53 percent, or 4.51 hours per shift).”
"We're taking this audit seriously and are reviewing our practices," said Muzzy Rosenblatt, BRC's CEO and President. "While we think the audit mischaracterized much of our work, we can always do better, and that is our focus."
In May, City Comptroller Scott Stringer reported the city’s spending on homelessness had more than doubled, to $3.2 billion, over five years, even as the shelter census set a record at 61,415 at the start of the year.
Crystal Wolfe is an author, homeless advocate and member of Community Board 5 in Queens who started her own grassroots non-profit called Catering for the Homeless, Inc. that provides meals and toiletries.
“It is frustrating to see some of these nonprofits that are collecting millions of dollars that aren’t really effectively utilizing the resources for the good of the homeless,” she said.
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