Cuomo Directs The MTA To Solve Subway Homelessness

Governor Cuomo attends the opening of the Second Avenue Subway on December 31st, 2016
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Governor Cuomo attends the opening of the Second Avenue Subway on December 31st, 2016 Gov. Office/Flickr

With the city's once-crumbling subway system now, uh, running completely smoothly, the MTA is turning its problem-solving skills on a new challenge: homelessness.

On Wednesday, the transit authority announced the creation of a new task force charged with coming up with a plan to "measurably reduce homelessness and panhandlers on the subway" within thirty days.

The announcement follows a letter sent by Governor Andrew Cuomo earlier this month, directing the agency to do something about subway's homeless population as part of a state-mandated reorganization plan.

"I've never seen it this bad," Cuomo—who last rode the subway on December, 31st, 2016—said at a press conference. "I've never seen it as a year-round phenomenon."

"Let's actually focus on helping the homeless, rather than political posturing," he added, helpfully.

The mandate for the new task force will include enhanced enforcement, exploring new resources to direct homeless New Yorkers to shelters, and looking into the possibility of creating a dedicated homeless outreach office within the MTA.

It's unclear who will actually serve on the task force, or which MTA executive will be overseeing it. An agency spokesperson did not respond to Gothamist's inquiries. The release notes that the MTA will be working "in partnership" with the MTA Police and New York State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance.

Subway homelessness has become a growing subject of concern for transit officials and the governor, after the MTA announced that the number of people living on the subway has grown 23 percent since last year—from 1,771 to 2,178.

But a new audit released by Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli this week found that the MTA is basing those figures off unreliable data obtained by the nonprofit Bowery Residents’ Committee, which was hired in 2010 to provide homeless services.

The comptroller's report also warned that Bowery Residents’ Committee was doing a fraction of the work it promised, and often turned away homeless people seeking assistance at outreach centers. Last month, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a new pilot program intended to help relocate homeless people from the subway to shelters—to be administered by Bowery Residents Committee.

Another subject of inquiry for the task force will be "new metrics for measuring homelessness."

Despite the dubious data, both the MTA and the governor have seen fit to pin a variety of transit woes on subway homelessness. Most recently, officials partially blamed the population for a downturn in revenue at Grand Central's dining concourse.

The governor, meanwhile, has lamented a "staggering" 54 percent spike in homeless-induced subway delays. According to the MTA, homeless people were responsible for 659 delays in 2018, a year in which the subway averaged 57,774 weekday delays per month.

Jacquelyn Simone, policy analyst at Coalition for the Homeless, said she was glad to see renewed interest in helping the homeless, but said that the governor's focus on enforcement and policing was largely "misplaced."

"If Gov. Cuomo wants to fix the problem let him step up with more housing and services specifically targeted for homeless people," Simone said. "Stop shifting the cost of shelters off to localities, and stop the prison-to-shelter pipeline from the State’s correctional facilities."

UPDATE: Following publication of this story, a spokesperson for Governor Cuomo told Gothamist:

Under the Governor’s $20 billion housing plan we are creating or preserving more than 100,000 affordable homes and 6,000 more with supportive services. Furthermore, as of April 2019, less than 5% of adults in the New York City shelter system are individuals on parole. As founder of the non-profit homeless housing organization HELP USA and HUD Secretary under President Clinton, Governor Cuomo has been on the frontlines fighting homelessness in New York and across the country for decades - any suggestion otherwise is ridiculous.

Additionally, a spokesperson for the MTA identified three members of the task force: MTA Managing Director Ronnie Hakim, NYPD Chief Edward Delatorre, and MTA Safety Director Patrick Warren. More names are expected to be announced soon.

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