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Data Fails To Show Whether New Strategies To Help The Homeless In The Subway Are Working

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This past summer, amid increased focus on quality of life issues and homelessness in the subway system, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo put in place new programs that they said would help homeless New Yorkers who sleep in the subway system get back on their feet.

Both city and state officials said the goal of their plans was to put the homeless in a better situation where they could receive shelter and services. According to the last annual one night homeless count, 2,178 people were sleeping on trains and in subway stations, an increase of 23 percent compared to 2018. (Advocates for the homeless have argued that the count, which is used to determine annual federal grants, underestimates the actual number of homeless.)

But the numbers from city and state initiatives don’t indicate if the homeless are being better served or if it is even possible to measure the effectiveness of these strategies.

“Do we actually think that street homelessness has declined since July? I think a rational person would probably say no,” said Gisele Routhier, policy director at the Coalition for the Homeless. “Both of these initiatives lack the actual solutions that we need, which is the low threshold shelters and actual housing.”

In July, the city started using NYPD summonses for violations of transit rules, such as fare evasion and lying outstretched, in a carrot and stick approach. Homeless New Yorkers who want to clear their summonses have been referred to the Bowery Residents’ Committee, the non-profit which provides outreach in the subway system, for assessment. If they take steps toward accepting services, such as shelter or medical care, their summonses disappear. 

From July through September, nearly half of 507 summonses that were issued were cleared, according to city data released for the first time. In the end, 51 people entered a shelter as a result of the initiative. 

At the same time the NYPD effort was underway, Governor Cuomo asked the MTA to also take an active role. In August, MTA police officers and workers from another state agency, the Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance (OTDA), which oversees the city’s Department of Homeless Services, began going to terminal subway stations during the night and engaging the homeless. Up until this point, the city alone has been responsible for providing homeless outreach in the subway system. 

Justin Mason, a spokesman for the agency, said, “OTDA launched its homeless outreach in the subway system in a direct humanitarian response to the significant underperformance of previous outreach efforts.”

The governor’s plan sparked fears among advocates that it would criminalize homeless people. Those concerns only intensified when the agency announced it would hire 500 more cops. 

Andrei Berman, a spokesman for the MTA, said that hasn’t happened. 

He said that since the program began, MTA police officers have issued eight summonses and made three arrests, which happened when “the officers encountered or witnessed crimes such as assaults.”

Ronnie Hakim, the MTA’s former managing director, maintained that the program has proven to be successful. 

“This is an initiative that demonstrates that this concerted effort is able to connect needy individuals to services,” she said.

Hakim said 1,330 people have been transported to shelters and hospitals since the state outreach began in August, but the MTA is not tracking how many people actually wind up staying in shelters. She said that was the city’s obligation.

Routhier, however, said the data provided by the state thus far is “vague” and doesn’t reveal what the two state agencies are actually doing.

Similarly, it is unclear how to judge the city’s results to date. Isaac McGinn, a spokesman for the Department of Homeless Services, said the efforts represented “progress in the right direction,” but would not say whether the 51 people who entered a shelter as a result of the city’s summons diversion program were still there.

“Every engagement and every conversation represents progress in the right direction, and the more opportunities we have for engaging New Yorkers in need, the better,” McGinn said.

From the beginning, the city program concerned advocates for the homeless and some elected officials. Stephen Levin, chair of the City Council’s General Welfare Committee, said it was unclear whether the increased police presence has led to more harassment of people living in the subway.

“Telling somebody that they could either take assistance or take a shelter placement or be given a summons or worse or arrested, I think, leaves them with very little choice,” he said. “I don’t see any evidence that that is an effective long-term solution.”



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