This weekend, New York state will deploy police officers and other employees to reduce the number of homeless people in the subway system, a function normally undertaken by the city.
MTA police and staff members from the State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance will be waiting at the end of several train lines, according to information obtained by WNYC/Gothamist. While the OTDA and other outreach workers will offer services and shelter placements to the homeless, the MTA police officers will be on hand to enforce violations of agency rules. The initiative will take place across 16 terminal stations in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx — from the World Trade Center on the E line to the end of the 4 line in Woodlawn.
“Simply being homeless is not a crime and our approach to this societal problem is to try to get people the help they need,” MTA spokesman Shams Tarek said in an email.
Tarek declined to say if homeless people would be forced to leave subway cars or stations or if they would be arrested if they refused. In general, police issue summonses for infractions such as lying down and taking up more than one seat, and arrests occur if someone commits a crime or has an open warrant.
The move comes on the heels of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s criticism of the MTA’s handling of homelessness, who said last month the problem is “worse than ever.” Last month, the authority formed a task force that set a goal of significantly reducing homelessness on the subways by the end of the year.
According to the latest federally-mandated count from earlier this year, 2,178 people were sleeping in the subway system — an increase of 23 percent compared to a year earlier. According to the MTA, trains were delayed 659 times by homeless people in 2018, though that is a small portion of the roughly 700,000 delays the system experienced that year.
Currently, the Bowery Residents’ Committee has contracts to provide services and bring homeless people into shelters from the subway system and commuter rail hubs. However, a state comptroller audit of BRC’s performance at Penn Station and other commuter rail stations last month criticized the non-profit for its lackluster performance.
The MTA’s initiative follows a program from the de Blasio administration that began last month, which gives homeless people in the subway system a chance to clear summonses for fare evasion or other infractions if they agree to go to a shelter.
But the city has often struggled to maintain safe conditions in the shelter system, and some homeless New Yorkers say they would rather take their chances on the streets or in the subway system than risk the shelters. As one homeless subway rider told the NY Times last year, "There’s places people can go, but no place that’s safe."
As part of the state’s effort, the city’s Department of Homeless Services has asked non-profit homeless services providers to wait at the end of subway lines to engage homeless people coming out of the stations.
Giselle Routhier, policy director at the Coalition for the Homeless, criticized the program for essentially “criminalizing” homelessness.
“This and the other previous announcements are all PR to make it look like the governor is doing something about the problem without actually devoting resources to addressing the problem: affordable housing, supportive housing, and low-threshold safe haven shelters,” she said.