MTA unsure how many homeless people sleep on NYC subway each night: report

Homeless people sleep on a train at the Coney Island Stillwell Ave. Terminal in Brooklyn.
Homeless people sleep on a train at the Coney Island Stillwell Ave. Terminal in Brooklyn. (Frank Franklin II/AP)

MTA officials do not know how many homeless people sleep on the subway each night — and are out of their depth when it comes to addressing the problem, a report published Sunday by the agency’s inspector general says.
Gov. Cuomo last year cobbled together a task force to make plans to reduce the number of people who use the subway for shelter, but the lack of data collected by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has hindered those efforts, according to the report.
Transit leaders rely on the city’s HOPE survey, which counts homeless people across the city one night a year, and tallies taken by subway workers on just four subway lines to estimate the number of people who sleep in MTA facilities. The IG said that provides an unreliable snapshot that’s all but useless.

“We also learned that the data was not shared widely or used for management purposes, and no statistical protocol was in place to extrapolate the results to the system as a whole,” the report states. “If the process were designed more formally and carried out consistently it could produce useful information.”

The IG report is the product of a year-long investigation into the MTA’s programs to coax homeless people off trains and into shelters — which are largely managed by the city’s Department of Homeless Services and the nonprofit Bowery Residents’ Committee.

The report notes that the problem of homeless people on subways “is beyond [the MTA’s] expertise and mission as a transportation agency,” but lays out that the agency should list out clear expectations city and nonprofit partners who oversee outreach. In order to put those benchmarks in place, transit honchos must first know the scale of the problem.

Bowery Residents Committee workers are expected to convince six of every 100 homeless people they encounter to accept help, but the MTA has no meaningful way to ensure that benchmark is met, the report shows. Another report released last July by state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli found that the workers spent around 2.2 hours per shift on outreach efforts and the remaining 5 or 6 hours in an office.

The shortfalls in outreach became an even larger problem this spring as the coronavirus pandemic caused subway ridership to fall by more than 90%, forcing homeless people to be more noticeable on otherwise empty trains. Starting May 6, Cuomo directed the MTA to close the system each night from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. to disinfect train cars and clear out homeless people.

Cuomo and transit officials have hailed the shutdown, claiming that the subway has never been cleaner. But the MTA has released little data showing how the homeless outreach is going.

Still, MTA officials concluded that the IG report let them off the hook when it comes to addressing the subway’s homeless problem.

“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," said MTA spokeswoman Meredith Daniels. "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.”

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