Last year the MTA, at the urging of Governor Cuomo, began an intensive effort to get homeless people out of subways and stations and into shelters or hospitals because of increased delays attributed to homeless people. The agency spends $5 million annually on its homeless efforts, and during the intensive efforts from August 2019 to this February alone, it paid out an additional $2.6 million in overtime to the MTA police, a force that had previously not worked in the subways.

A new report from the MTA’s independent Inspector General finds none of those efforts reduced the number of delays caused by the homeless, nor did they reduce the number of customer complaints about the homeless. The IG added that the MTA doesn’t have any useful metrics on how many people stay in the subways, left the subways, or found shelter, making it difficult to conduct oversight of its contractors or measure success.

From the MTA' Inspector General's office

In response, the MTA said it’s not a social service agency, it’s a transportation one, and that the city should do more.

“We are in full agreement with the Inspector General that this important work is the obligation of the city, and should not rest with a transportation agency. We appreciate the IG's work on this matter, and will continue to support and urge the city to step up and provide homeless New Yorkers with access to critical services  as the subway is not a substitute for a shelter,” MTA spokesperson Meredith Daniels wrote in a statement.

Still, the MTA has an annual $1.8 million contract with the Bowery Residents’ Committee (BRC) to do outreach, and the city contributes another $3 million to provide additional resources for homeless outreach. Despite a previous comptroller report about the BRC’s poor performance, the IG report didn’t find anything fraudulent about BRC’s work, simply stating there was a “lack of effective data collection and reporting metrics makes it difficult for the MTA to provide adequate oversight of its contractor.”

The MTA’s contract with BRC expires at the end of June, which the IG notes makes this “an opportune time to adjust it as necessary.” 

Jacquelyn Simone,a policy analyst at Coalition for the Homeless, explained better data will help, but what’s needed is housing.

“We’re going to keep spinning our wheels when it comes to homelessness if we keep approaching it in this manner. Instead of saying the problem is “we don't have enough outreach workers, we don’t have enough police officers,” we need to think about what the police officers and the outreach workers are actually offering people and whether those options that are being offered to people are what the homeless New Yorkers themselves want or need,” Simone told Gothamist.

Listen to Stephen Nessen's report on WNYC:

She noted many people are avoiding crowded shelters, but private permanent housing or temporary hotel room might be more appealing.

“The tools that we are offering people are not what they need in many instances, and then we’re constantly flummoxed why we’re seeing the same people on the transit system as if we’ve been offering what they want and need, and that’s fundamentally not the case,” she said.

In response to the IG’s report, the MTA also said that as it negotiates its arrangement with the city, the new contract will include “new performance metrics and monitoring provisions and to address issues related to oversight, staff deployment and data access.” 

The report was drafted before the MTA began shutting down the system overnight from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. during which time all people are removed from the subway system and the stations and trains are cleaned. Governor Cuomo praised this move as the only way the MTA was able to deal with its homeless problem. 

“This is a situation where the MTA couldn’t figure out how to get homeless out of the subways for decades, let alone get newspapers, coffee cups, and garbage out of subway cars,” Cuomo said last week. “The cars are now getting disinfected. Homeless are getting services they need, and they’re no longer living in a subway system.”

The MTA says the overnight shutdowns will continue as long as there’s a pandemic.