More than a week before 40-year old Michelle Go was pushed in front a moving train at Times Square on Saturday, Gov. Kathy Hochul and Mayor Eric Adams announced a plan to bolster safety in the subways: More police officers patrolling platforms, and teams of mental health professionals to connect people experiencing homelessness, particularly those with mental illness, with resources. They spoke at a lectern emblazoned with the name of the new state-funded homeless outreach program: “SAFE OPTIONS SUPPORT TEAMS.”
Hochul said she was “immediately” issuing a request for proposals to fund an entity to run the program “right now.”
“I'm announcing that I’m signing a [Request For Proposal, or RFP] to go out immediately to develop these teams, to staff up an initial five batch of teams right now,” she said.
But a review of state RFPs show that the state has yet to publish one.
Instead, only one part of the Hochul-Adams plan has been implemented: More cops. About 1,000 additional officers are now working in the transit system, according to NYPD chief of transit Kathleen O’Reilly, and as of earlier this week they had conducted nearly 7,000 patrols.
Six officers were at the Times Square station during the time when Go was killed — including two on the same platform she was pushed from — but they were not able to stop the tragedy from unfolding. Advocates for those living in the subways and transit riders say the incident underscores the need for the kind of assistance to the homeless that Hochul promised, even though they cast doubts on the effectiveness of her plan.
A spokeswoman for Hochul, Hazel Crampton-Hays, did not respond to two requests for comment about why the RFP had not yet been issued, when the new so-called SOS teams will be deployed, and who would be part of them.
At a hearing Wednesday afternoon to confirm Janno Lieber as the new chair of the MTA, the agency that operates the city’s transit system, Lieber told state lawmakers that Hochul will use existing resources to deploy mental health teams to the subway, possibly before permanent SOS teams are implemented.
“I'm expecting the first wave of those state sponsored professionals to be out by the end of this week or early next week," Lieber said.
Lisa Daglian, executive director of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA, said “the faster it starts, the better.”
“We should not live in a city of fear,” she said.
The rate of crimes in the subway increased from 2019 to 2021, according to a recent New York Times analysis. Through November, the rate of felony assaults and robberies was up 200% and 125% respectively compared to the same period in 2019.
Flooding the subways with both outreach workers and police will improve the perception of the subway — and “people’s perception is reality,” Daglian said. She said riders should also be able to text an outreach team if there’s a person in need of assistance. But she added, a mental health approach shouldn’t wait until an RFP is issued. “The city and the state certainly have people in…social services, and social workers in outreach roles, who can go out into the system and work with people who need help,” she said.
The city already has a contract with Bowery Residents’ Committee (BRC) to handle outreach to people experiencing homelessness on the streets and subway. But Daglian said she rides the subway every day and can’t remember the last time she saw such an outreach team aiding people who could pose harm to themselves or others.
Last month, the state comptroller criticized the city’s oversight of its $88 million outreach contract with BRC, citing 6% of total costs that didn’t comply with contracted requirements. “The city needs to enforce its contract with BRC, it needs to get its job done, it needs to make sure it gets its job done, it needs to make sure services are provided and teams are out there,” Daglian said.
Muzzy Rosenblatt, CEO of BRC, did not respond to a call for comment.
It is unclear what will be different with Hochul’s plan from those previous efforts. A Jan. 5 press release from her office indicated the SOS teams, made up of “trained mental health practitioners,” would be deployed in New York City and elsewhere in the state to transition people, particularly those with mental illness or substance abuse disorders,” into stable housing.
“We're going to get them the support they need, get them into shelter and ultimately into housing,” Hochul said at the press conference with Adams earlier this month.
The SOS teams are expected to work in teams of eight to 10 people. There will be 20 teams, according to Hochul’s executive budget. That amounts to just 200 outreach workers, which advocates said is too few people to make too much of a dent in the problem.
Asked for further details about the SOS teams, James Plastiras, spokesman for the state Office of Mental Health, which will implement the program, said he was not able to respond to WNYC/Gothamist in time for publication.
Advocates said it will likely take several months for a contract to be awarded and teams to staff up, and they argued that it is unclear how much of a difference they can make given the lack of housing in New York City for people experiencing homelessness.
“If we are surging police officers and then later adding in outreach teams that don’t actually have access to those resources that people want, it won’t be an effective solution,” said Jacquelyn Simone, policy director for the Coalition for the Homeless.
Those resources — like single-occupancy rooms, supportive housing for those with mental health and substance abuse issues, and ultimately permanent housing — are severely limited or too bureaucratically difficult for most unhoused people to access. “If they’re only able to offer people transport to a large congregate shelter, many people will not accept that offer for many valid reasons: They don’t feel safe in those facilities, they’ve tried this congregate shelter system and found that it did not meet their needs, etc.,” Simone said.
She said police presence can breed distrust between the homeless and outreach workers. A recent encounter in a subway station captured on video and published by City Limits that shows police officers aggressively removing a man who was sitting on a set of stairs leading to the platform seemed to underscore the potential pitfalls of law enforcement officers dealing with vagrancy and possible mental illness.
Previous efforts at outreach have not worked because they weren’t done at a large enough scale or they didn’t have enough support from the government, according to Danny Pearlstein, policy and communications director of the Riders Alliance. “Transit riders overall are desperate for a solution to the humanitarian crisis that’s unfolding in the subway,” he said.
Adams, meanwhile, has continued to talk about the need for mental health treatment in the subway, and how policing alone won’t solve the problem. At a vigil for Go on Tuesday, he said, “My deployment of law enforcement officers, matched with mental health professionals to identify those who are in need and give them the services immediately, is what we must do right now.”
UPDATE: The day after this article published, Gov. Hochul officially launched the request for proposal she announced two weeks ago, inviting non-profits to bid on the creation of 20 SOS teams at an initial cost of $11 million and $21 million in future years. In a statement released Friday, the governor's office said these teams will consist of clinicians, nurses, social workers, and behavioral health specialists. The state expects to deploy four teams in New York City by early spring of this year, with an additional eight teams planned by summer. The remaining eight teams will work in other parts of the state.