Like so many decisions made by our political leaders, this one started with a story in the news.
In June, NY1 reporter Dan Rivoli got his hands on subway incident reports going back 10 years and found that the number of incidents involving homeless people had tripled during that time. The number of incidents logged by the rail control towers, which receives information from conductors and train operators on subway cars and in stations, had gone from 254 in 2008, to 836 in 2018. Most of those “incidents” caused some sort of delay to riders.
On a conference call with reporters soon after, in which New York Governor Andrew Cuomo was meant to discuss the MTA’s reorganization plan, he made “the homeless problem” one of the MTA’s top priorities to address.
“Someone has to say whatever everyone believes and thinks, what is going on? How did we get here," Cuomo said.
In the late 1980s, Cuomo founded a non-profit that built housing for the homeless, followed by a stint as Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development under President Bill Clinton. He probably knows “how we got here.” Additionally, as Gothamist reported, Cuomo cut a rent subsidy program for homeless people in 2011 and has not supported the Home Stability Support Bill, which advocates argue would help people avoid losing their housing.
Still, less than a week after that NY1 report, he moved forward with an enforcement option. He ordered the MTA to deploy its Bridge and Tunnel police to the subways, and got the NYPD to agree to assign 200 of its officers to address “quality of life” issues in the subway, like fare beating and assault on workers, and the homeless.
Does the data support the Governor’s position?
According to the MTA, there were 659 delays caused by homeless people in 2018. In that same time the MTA had 880,078 delays total. While the 659 delays may have been very unpleasant for riders and workers, statistically, it’s a rounding error. The leading cause of delays in 2018, evident to anyone that rides the subway, was signal-related delays, accounting for 46,856 delays.
Additionally, the governor and MTA said there’s been a 23 percent increase in homelessness in the subways. That number comes from the HOPE count, which was conducted on one of the coldest nights of the year, likely increasing the number of people seeking refuge in the subways on that particular night. But if you look at the total number of “unsheltered individuals from 2018 to 2019, there was actually a 2 percent decrease, indicating that “the homeless problem” hasn’t changed a great deal year over year—there just happened to be more people in the subway during the one night, once-a-year count. There has been an increase in the number of people in shelters, but many of them are families, not who the governor is talking about.
Crime in the subways has also remained flat since Michael Bloomberg was mayor, according to Nicole Gelinas, a researcher and policy expert at the Manhattan Institute. So, statistically, the governor is going with his gut. He proffered a tale to reporters recently to back up his assertions, about a waiter at a restaurant he was eating in recently who told him his black eye was from an assault on the subway. The governor declined to say what restaurant he was eating in so reporters could fact check this story, and the worker has never come forward. We'll never know if it's a composite narrative or a total fabrication, but it does have a similiar ring to the un-fact-checkable story he tells about the L train.
The governor decided quality of life on the subways is a growing problem, therefore it must be a growing problem.
It’s not an exaggeration to say the future of the MTA’s viability as a transit agency rests on what happens in the next few years. It now has a roadmap to modernization with the $51.5 billion capital plan, but it’s far from certain that it will be fully funded by the state or city, or that the MTA will be able to get the signals installed, the new trains ordered or shovels in the ground on the 2nd Avenue subway extension in the near term. The agency is barreling toward a $1 billion operating deficit, and it has warned of some “pain” to come in the form of service cuts and altered service while this work is underway.
And whether homeless people sleep in cars and terminals or not has very little to do with the overall performance, nor is it likely the determining factor in whether riders are avoiding the subways. Poor weekend service, and the convenience of ride sharing are more likely explanations for the declining ridership. On MTA customer service satisfaction surveys (see below), complaints about homeless rank low, at about 2 percent month over month, while “real time service” issues top the list every time.
"I think it’s a distraction. It’s very easy for people to point to homeless folks and blame them for things because they're sort of voiceless in all of this," said Catherine Tripani, executive director of Homeless Services United, a coalition of groups that provides help for the homeless. "It's easy to point to them and make them into a bogeyman, but I think the real issue with the MTA is much bigger and is an aging infrastructure problem that no amount of enforcement of homeless folks is going to fix."
“A customer has a right, a rider has a right not to be harassed, not to be threatened, not to be subjected to intolerable conditions,” he said recently, referring to the homeless.
And just this month he made it clear that he wants the MTA to clean up its trains and stations.
“They’re not responsible for the homeless problem, but they’re responsible for protecting people on their property. And they’re responsible for enforcing the rules and regulations.”
MTA workers are on the front lines
It’s worth noting that MTA workers don’t receive any special training when it comes to interacting with the homeless, according to union representatives.
In fact, the only guidance train operators receive is in the form of two bulletins from New York City Transit. The subject of one is “SPECIAL ANNOUNCEMENT- PANHANDLING” and reads “The Division of Service Delivery is committed to supporting the MTA Connections program that seeks to remove homeless persons [sp] from the subway and into shelters or other care facilities that can accommodate their needs.”
Gothamist/WNYC called the phone number of the “MTA Connections” program and an operator confirmed that many people make this mistake, but it is just the customer care hotline you call for directions or if you have a problem with your MetroCard.
The bulletin includes an announcement conductors should make periodically: “Ladies and gentlemen, soliciting money in the subway is illegal. We ask you not to give. Please help us to maintain an orderly subway.”
The other bulletin is a list of all the activities that homeless people may be doing, which are illegal. It includes:
Eric Loegel is Vice President of Rapid Transit Operations at TWU Local 100, and a former train operator, and says transit workers aren’t trained to deal with this population.
“Transit workers are not mental health counsellors, we’re not law enforcement, we’re not social workers. Our job is to safely move trains from one end to the other,” he said.
There are efforts underway to help the homeless staying in subways, but it’s not exactly something advocates are lauding. The city launched a pilot program in July that pairs outreach workers with NYPD, although essentially they’re giving vulnerable people a choice: go to a shelter or receive a summons for a MTA violation. The MTA also partners with the Bowery Residents Committee, which helps the homeless find shelter. But the MTA’s Inspector General conducted an investigation into its work and found after a week of surveillance that the group “appears to be providing, at best, minimal outreach services-often turning away those apparently seeking assistance and, at worst, seemingly ignoring homeless person seeking assistance.” The state comptroller’s office also conducted its own investigation and found similar shortcomings and urged the MTA to more closely monitor BRC’s work.
Still, the MTA’s default problem-solving mode is enforcement. As the agency moves forward with its $51.5 billion capital plan, some of that will include funds for cameras to deter crime, presumably to more closely monitor what’s happening in stations and on platforms.
Listen to Stephen Nessen's report on the MTA's approach to homelessness:
Weeks after the governor demanded the MTA fix the homeless issue it began a hiring spree. Ads started popping up in subway stations announcing the MTA is hiring 500 new police officers, which would double its current police force.
The governor and MTA defended the costs, saying the Manhattan District Attorney is covering it with $40 million from his office. But in the original announcement about this funding stream, it notes the money will also be used for new video technology and related construction costs.
With starting MTA police salaries of $42,000 plus benefits, the Citizens Budget Commission told Gothamist/WNYC that it estimated the cost of these officers could be $663 million over a 10-year period. In the first year, 500 officers could cost $41 million, growing to $96 million by the tenth year.
This could add $131.6 million to the MTA’s deficit over the life of the financial plan.The good news is, unlike other parts of the agency, MTA police overtime is capped at 15 percent, and apparently this is one department where overtime is managed well.
The MTA says money saved from fare evasion losses could also cover some of these costs as well, but the agency says it loses $215 million a year from subway and bus fare beating. It could be more, but the agency doesn't have a good handle on how much it loses from evasion.
The governor appeared to back down from his crackdown on the homeless, when asked directly if it was worth hiring 500 additional police. “Police are there to fight crime, and there are quality of life crimes. The homeless issue is separate,” he said on the Brian Lehrer Show. But so far, he hasn’t suggested any alternative solutions.
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated the hiring of the 500 new police officers would add $740 million to the MTA’s deficit; the correct figure is $131.6 million. The MTA's deficit is now $740 million.
We the Commuters goes live at The Greene Space with a look at homelessness in the subways on September 24th, hosted by Shumita Basu along with her fellow WNYC and Gothamist reporters. The evening will include conversations with State Senator Liz Krueger, MTA Board Member Larry Schwartz, Coalition for the Homeless Policy Director Giselle Routhier, the former homeless, and more. More details here.