According to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the number of homeless people finding sanctuary in the subway system has jumped 20 percent in the past year.
The disclosure that close to 2,200 people were living in the system came with the agency’s Oct. 4 release of its Homeless Task Force Report, which lays out the details of a multi-agency state response the MTA is spearheading.
“This is a disproportionate increase compared with rates experienced citywide and is not sustainable by the system,” the MTA said in a statement with the release of the report.
“This precipitous increase in homelessness in the subway system, coupled with concerns over the inaction of New York City and its shared contractors with the MTA, prompted OTDA [Office of Temporary Disability Assistance] to begin a state-run outreach program in the subway system.”
The statement continued, “Since mid-August, teams of staff from OTDA have worked in the subway system providing direct outreach, in close coordination with the MTA, to individuals who are homeless to ensure services are provided to those in need.”
Over the summer the MTA task force, which includes OTDA, the state Department of Health, the state Office of Mental Health, and the state Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services, investigated homelessness in the transit system and developed an action plan.
‘More Cops Not Answer’
The Coalition for the Homeless, a leading non-profit, was critical of the MTA’s approach to the homeless crisis. “The report repeatedly decries New Yorkers who ‘inappropriately’ seek shelter within the transit system without ever raising the systemic failures that have left thousands of individuals with no better option than to sleep on the subways,” said Giselle Routhier, the non-profit’s policy director. “We’ll say it once more for those who still haven’t received the memo: If we want to help vulnerable New Yorkers move off the subways, we need to give them somewhere better to go.”
She continued, “That means investing in more low-threshold safe-haven shelters and fully committing to the creation of affordable permanent and supportive housing. By emphasizing further policing of homeless New Yorkers instead of devoting resources to the services and housing people actually need, the State has once again missed an opportunity to truly and humanely address homelessness.”
The commitment to double-down on the homeless in the subway system came after State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli released a blistering audit that covered from January 2015 through February 2019 for a contract that the transit agency has with the Bowery Residents Committee, a nonprofit that took millions from the agency but largely failed to perform homeless outreach in places like Penn Station and Grand Central Station.
According to a report from MTA Inspector General Carolyn Pokorny issued July 23, the MTA has spent tens of millions of dollars since 2010 in an effort to deal with the homeless issue. But her preliminary probe found BRC appeared to be “at best” providing “minimal outreach” while “often turning away those apparently seeking assistance and worst seemingly ignoring the homeless persons seeking assistance.”
Based on its latest available tax filings through Guide Star, the charity clearinghouse, BRC brought in $289,730,562 in government grants from 2012 through 2016. Its executive director, Lawrence “Muzzy” Rosenblatt, a former city official during the Koch, Dinkins and Giuliani administrations, became Acting Commissioner for Homeless Services for eight months during 1998 and 1999. His total compensation at BRC was listed as $340,662.
The firm is represented by Capalino + Company, the lobbying firm whose CEO is James Capalino, one of Mayor de Blasio’s major political donors.
‘Unresponsive to Clients’
“We witnessed numerous instances where outreach workers appeared to intentionally isolate themselves inside the BRC office, unresponsive to clients who came seeking services,” according to the State Comptroller’s audit. “We also 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.”
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).”
In announced and unannounced visits to Penn Station, auditors saw BRC staff in “numerous instances…ignoring homeless people knocking on the door of the outreach office in Penn Station, where they sometimes hung a ‘closed’ sign on the door even though outreach workers were inside.”
MTA spokesman Shams Tarek said it "has been taking corrective action to achieve greater accountability from BRC, including stepping up MTA oversight and directing BEC to improve its internal supervision and processes."
500 Additional Cops
Last month, the MTA announced it was hiring 500 new transit police officers above attrition. The announcement came after Governor Cuomo made public comments about the deterioration of the “quality of life” in the transit system.
"A customer has a right, a rider has a right not to be harassed, not to be threatened, not to be subjected to intolerable conditions,” Mr. Cuomo said, according to WNYC.
In recent years, Transport Workers Union Local 100 members have described the serious challenges they faced in dealing with homeless individuals who on occasion have assaulted them.
Since the summer surge, several unionized workers said in interviews that the increased police presence was helpful and that they felt personally safer but that the officers were deployed at the turnstiles, and not on the platforms, where the homeless most frequently congregated.
As Little as Possible
During a recent observation of a three-person BRC team in operation during the morning rush hour at Penn Station, the outreach workers were accompanied by an NYPD officer. The “engagement” of an apparent homeless person who was asleep on the floor of the station in badly soiled clothes consisted of the police officer clapping his hands to wake him up and one of the BRC employees asking the homeless person how he was.
After the brief interaction, the team moved on and the homeless man went back to sleep on the station floor.
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