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Subway Homeless Outreach Group Gets New $68M City Deal Despite Doubts About Its Success

Homeless outreach workers speak with a man at Herald Square, Dec. 20, 2019.
Homeless outreach workers speak with a man at Herald Square, Dec. 20, 2019.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

A nonprofit organization whose work with the homeless has been questioned by the state comptroller and the MTA’s inspector general is in line for a new $68.5 million dollar contract to extend its subway outreach.

The current three-year $40.6 million deal between the Bowery Residents’ Committee and the Department of Homeless Services runs through the end of the month. The group last year bid to keep trying to get people living on trains and stations into some other form of shelter.

“BRC is an essential partner in the effort to help New Yorkers living unsheltered on the subways get back on their feet, along with the MTA,” said Arianna Fishman, a spokesperson for DHS. “And as we redouble and enhance our outreach efforts citywide, including on the subways, we need their experience, expertise, and collaboration every step of the way.”

A report released this week by MTA Inspector General Carolyn Pokorny said the transit agency’s homeless outreach efforts in the subway have been “very expensive” while having “minimal” effectiveness. The report also said the MTA needs to “strengthen its oversight” of outreach providers, including the Bowery Residents’ Committee.

That was on top of a January report in which state Comptroller Tom DiNapoli flagged “shoddy” homeless outreach in the subway and a lack of oversight of Bowery Residents’ Committee workers by the city and the MTA.

The MTA and DHS team up on the work through a joint agreement between the agencies.

Incidents Dip Since Shutdown

The nonprofit’s three-year contract renewal with the Department of Homeless Services comes as the city and the MTA have been steering the homeless out of stations and cars during the nightly 1 a.m.-to-5 a.m. shutdown that’s used to disinfect the subway system during the coronavirus pandemic.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo and MTA officials have said the overnight shutdown will extend at least through the end of the crisis.

Homeless outreach workers speak to people sleeping on an E train at the World Trade Center stop.
Homeless outreach workers speak to people sleeping on an E train at the World Trade Center stop, March 10, 2020.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

There’s been a significant decrease in the number of incidents in the subway involving homeless people since the overnight shutdowns began May 6 — a total of 72, or about 1.8 per day, according to the MTA.

For the five months prior to that, the MTA logged 502 such incidents, an average of four a day.

The city says that since the overnight shutdowns began, more than 2,100 individuals who were on subway platforms or outside of stations have accepted referrals to shelters or hospital care.

“We are not taking a one-size-fits-all approach — and not every individual may be referred to the same services or may be ready to accept services in a given night,” the Department of Homeless Services said in a statement. “Some individuals may be transported to shelter and/or intake, while others may be more suited for safe haven/stabilization beds.”

‘Better Situation Isn’t Always Available’

An MTA spokesperson said the city “needs to step up efforts” in providing services for the homeless.

“As [Pokorny] bluntly and correctly pointed out, the MTA is a transportation organization, not a provider of social services,” said the spokesperson, Tim Minton.

The new contract between the city and the Bowery Residents’ Committee includes “clearly defined performance metrics and oversight provisions,” according to the Department of Homeless Services.

Muzzy Rosenblatt, president and CEO of the Bowery Residents’ Committee, did not return phone calls from THE CITY.

Josh Dean, executive director of Human.NYC, a support group for people experiencing homelessness, said outreach workers have the “nearly impossible” task of trying to help people who have been sheltering in the subway.

“The challenge is that the better situation isn’t always available, in terms of housing or safe haven,” Dean said. “So BRC’s workers kind of have their hands tied.”

Jacquelyn Simone, a policy analyst with the Coalition for the Homeless, said building more affordable housing in the city would make the job of homeless outreach in the subway easier.

“Even a very talented and compassionate worker might not result in someone moving into someplace better,” she said. “That’s because we often don’t have someplace better for someone to go.”

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