wrong track

‘Shoddy’ Outreach to Homeless Led to Missed Subway Goals, Comptroller Says

Homeless outreach workers speak to a man at 34 Street-Herald Square on Dec. 20, 2019.
Homeless outreach workers speak to a man at 34 Street-Herald Square on Dec. 20, 2019. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

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A new report from the state comptroller pins the surge in subway homelessness on “shoddy” work and lack of oversight by the city and the MTA of the nonprofit they pay to help steer people into shelters.

Starting in 2014, the Department of Homeless Services and the MTA split the cost of two three-year contracts totaling $36 million to the Bowery Residents’ Committee to reduce the number of people using the subway system as shelter.

But the audit by state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli blames the contractor for “repeatedly” failing to do the job.

“Homeless outreach in the subway has been so shoddy and with so little oversight from DHS and MTA, that it should be no surprise the homeless population in the subways has grown,” DiNapoli said in a statement.

The audit repeatedly flags outreach workers from the Bowery Residents’ Committee, saying they missed required visits to subway stations and, in some cases, offered no services at all. The nonprofit’s latest three-year contract is set to expire this summer.

“DHS seems to have hired the Bowery Residents’ Committee to deal with the subway homeless population, then walked away,” DiNapoli said.

Subway Homelessness Going Wrong Way

The audit, covering Jan. 1, 2015 to June 6, 2019, says the homeless population in the subway system last year grew to 2,178, according to the annual Homeless Outreach Population Estimate. That marks an 18% increase since 2013.

The initial Bowery Residents’ Committee contract, which ended in June 2017, called for the homeless population in the subway to shrink by two-thirds from its 2013 level.

At the time of the audit, the Bowery Residents’ Committee employed 70 outreach workers to work in pairs for visits to all 472 subway stations.

Its staffing levels are now set to increase by 122 workers, said Muzzy Rosenblatt, president and CEO of the Bowery Residents’ Committee. Some of those workers will be teamed with the NYPD to help get homeless people to shelters, while others will be posted at end-of-line stations during overnight hours.

A person sleeps on a subway in Jamaica, Queens, Oct. 2, 2019.
A person sleeps on a subway in Jamaica, Queens, on Oct. 2, 2019. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

DiNapoli’s audit is the latest report looking into contracts for homeless outreach in the transit system. A July 2019 audit of a separate, $2 million-a-year MTA contract with the Bowery Residents’ Committee found that outreach efforts were falling short at Penn Station, Grand Central Terminal and at Long Island Rail Road and Metro-North stations in the city.

“While the [state comptroller] reports’ conclusions fail to appreciate the effort and achievements of BRC’s outreach programs, we recognize there are opportunities to improve and have already begun to work with our government partners to implement constructive changes,” Rosenblatt said.

DHS placed the organization in a “corrective action plan” last August to improve reporting and increase the number of encounters with the homeless in subway stations in hopes of placing more in shelters.

Many Can’t Stand Shelters

But several homeless people who spoke with THE CITY say they have no interest in staying at city shelters, citing fears of violence. As of Tuesday, there were 60,000 individuals living in city-run shelters, according to Department of Homeless Services data.

“In a shelter, you’ll get robbed, someone will steal your clothes or break into your locker,” said Lawrence Holmes, 55, who said he usually stays overnight at the 59th Street-Columbus Circle or 7th Avenue stations in Manhattan. “I don’t want to take a chance.”

While the audit says outreach workers repeatedly failed to make scheduled station visits — including some at “high-risk stations” — they are often slowed by the time it takes to engage homeless people who don’t wish to be helped.

Marvin Thomes, 67, said he’s been approached by homeless outreach workers, but prefers to stay out of shelters.
Marvin Thomes, 67, said he’s been approached by homeless outreach workers, but prefers to stay out of shelters. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

“They’re doing their job,” said Marvin Thomes, 67, a homeless man who was on a subway platform at 34th Street-Penn Station. “But a lot of people just feel safer in the subway than in a shelter.”

Homeless people living in the subway system who refuse to go to shelters could be placed in what is known as transitional housing.

But to qualify, they must be declared “chronically homeless” by being spotted on the street or in the subway over a period of months. In July, THE CITY reported that workers from the Bowery Residents’ Committee hand out cards that get marked with each sighting.

’Unreliable’ NUmbers

The audit says the numbers BRC gave to the MTA and the Department of Homeless Services on how many people are being placed in shelters from subway stations are “unreliable.”

“For example, in one case, a client was not placed until over one year after being reported as placed,” the audit notes. “Additionally, this client was placed in a different shelter than what was reported.”

The city’s homeless-services agency now conducts “monthly quality assurance reviews” of its outreach efforts to verify all data and new performance metrics have also been implemented.

“We take the comptroller’s report seriously, and while we disagree on some of the details, we agree with the spirit of the recommendations,” said Isaac McGinn of the city’s Department of Social Services. “We intend to hold all providers accountable to high standards.”

MTA Chairman Patrick Foye, in a letter to the comptroller’s director of audits, wrote that management will, where appropriate, “ensure” enforcement of the recommendations.

The initial three-year contract, for $18.5 million, dates to June 2014. It was extended for three years in July 2017.

An MTA spokesperson called the audit “out of date” and pointed to a task force launched in August that has made “more than 30,000” contacts with homeless people in the subway.

“We continue to do everything we can to address this society problem and what amounts to multiple failures — of the shelter system, mental health system, and broader social services network — that have left many of the most vulnerable New Yorkers to believe that their only and last resort is to live on the subway,” said the spokesperson, Shams Tarek.

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