Spurred by Governor Andrew Cuomo's second-hand horror stories about homelessness in the subway system (the governor himself hasn't taken a ride since 2016), the MTA announced with a palpable sense of urgency in July that it was creating a "task force" to come up with a plan within 30 days to "measurably reduce homelessness and panhandlers on the subway." On Friday, the agency released the fruits of the task force's labor.
Given that the task force, which is made up of a host of state and city agencies, considerably blew their 30-day deadline to turn in the report, perhaps they needed more time to grapple with some of the bigger, systemic problems that exacerbate one of society's most intractable issues.
The report, which is 9 pages long, is not signed by a single human being. It uses the word "inappropriately" eleven times to describe how New Yorkers seek shelter in the subway system, and features five recommendations, the most substantive of which—that the MTA will hire 500 new police officers to patrol the subway system to address "quality of life" issues—was announced three weeks ago.
(A cynic might conclude that this task force was a creation of political expediency rather than an attempt to use the awesome power of the state to help New Yorkers.)
Another recommendation: for employees of the state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance (ODTA) to "continue to deploy emergency teams to deliver enhanced homelessness outreach within the transit system."
Finally, the MTA says it will "do more to publicize longstanding MTA Rules of Conduct and to inform the ridership about applicable rules and regulation as well as assistance available for those experiencing homelessness."
Other recommendations, which are for the state and the city to "work closely" together, and for the MTA's Inspector General to oversee the above recommendations, aren't so much recommendations as things that should already be happening.
"Our intent is to do what we need to do to be able to support the ODTA efforts," MTA Managing Director Ronnie Hakim said at a press conference on Friday, adding that the number of police officers currently stationed on platforms will increase from 50 to 100 in the coming days.
"I think maybe the issue is having people whose mission in that moment on that platform is to connect homeless individuals with homeless services," Hakim added.
"More officers in the system has a whole bunch of value," said Patrick Warren, MTA Chief Safety Officer. "One of the principle things they're doing here is they're helping to protect the social workers that are out there on the platforms. Second thing is they're the eyes and ears and can actually handle a difficult situation. Some of these folks are in trouble, and they're disturbed."
Jacquelyn Simone, a policy analyst for Coalition for the Homeless, said the report "offers more of the same as the City and the State continue with their misguided and cruel race to see which entity can more aggressively criminalize and harass homeless New Yorkers in the subway system."
Simone added, "If we want to help vulnerable New Yorkers move off the subways, we need to give them somewhere better to go. That means investing in more low-threshold safe haven shelters and fully committing to the creation of affordable permanent and supportive housing."
Catherine Trapani, the executive director for Homeless Services United, agreed.
"As we’ve said before, no amount of policing is going to change the fact that there is simply not enough permanent, supportive housing to meet the demand," Trapani wrote in an email. "We’re disappointed that instead of expanding on proven solutions to actually end homelessness, the State is choosing to double down on increased policing of homeless people."
Asked about proven solutions for the homeless New Yorkers who wind up in the subway system—like supportive and affordable housing—Hakim pointed to Governor Cuomo's $20 billion affordable housing plan that he announced in 2017.
We asked Cuomo's office if the task force's report meant he would accelerate the construction of supportive housing units, or support a rent subsidy for homeless and low income New Yorkers that he has previously opposed.
"As the governor has said, addressing homelessness is critical to the stability of the system and we are reviewing the report," a Cuomo spokesperson replied.