MTA officials said they have been unable to significantly reduce the number of homeless people inside Penn Station in recent years, despite temporarily moving more of them out of the LIRR’s Manhattan terminal and into shelters.
Although outreach workers contracted by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority have had increasing success in temporarily relocating some Penn dwellers, MTA Director of Emergency Support Judith Walker acknowledged that the number of homeless in the station has remained “pretty consistent over the last few years.”
Discussing a new report on homelessness in MTA stations, Walker noted that, despite complaints from commuters, the agency has little authority to forcibly oust homeless people from its stations, unless it can prove they pose a danger to themselves or others — a difficult threshold to meet without documentation of mental illness.
And, because of Penn Station’s ample space and warm temperatures, some homeless people prefer its conditions over those at New York City shelters, regarded by some homeless as restrictive, unsanitary and dangerous.
“One thing that is really important to remember is that placements are voluntary,” Walker said. “If we had more facilities we would see less people in our facilities.”
According to the report, the agency, working with outside contractors, helped place 742 homeless people found in Penn Station into shelters or other facilities in 2015, compared to about 572 in 2014 — an increase of 28 percent.
The number of placements increased more in the first quarter of 2016 to 351, according to the report released last week, compared to 298 during the same period in 2015 and 132 in the first quarter of 2014.
Jeff Foreman, policy director for Care for the Homeless, a Manhattan-based advocacy group, said it is to be expected that many Penn dwellers, hardened by “bad experiences,” to accept services offered by outreach workers, including shelter.
“For some people, the discipline of a shelter is just difficult to deal with,” said Foreman, who believes the long-term solution is in homeless prevention, including by providing career, health, and financial services and better housing options for at-risk New Yorkers.
“The majority of those people who are on the street or in Penn Station would be willing to have their own, stable apartment,” Foreman said. “Obviously, by definition, a bunch of those people have made the determination that being on the street or being in a park or being in a public place is better than being in a shelter.”
Despite routine complaints by commuters of being inconvenienced and harassed by Penn’s homeless population, Walker said that things have gotten somewhat better. Since stepping up its outreach efforts about a decade ago, the number of homeless people counted in Penn during the cold winter months has been cut in half t about 100, from about 200.
The latest figures on Penn’s homeless problem surfaced just days before Friday’s deadline for developers to submit their proposals to redevelop the station, used by 650,000 travelers each day. In January, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced the plan to transform Penn, and the adjacent Moynihan Station currently under construction, into a new Empire Station complex, with new grand entrances, natural light beaming in, and upscale retailers.
Representatives from more than 80 firms interested in bidding for the contract participated in a pair of tours of Penn Station in February and March. Jonah Bruno, spokesman for the Empire State Development Corporation, said he could not discuss any details of the proposals until a developer is chosen.
“Following the submission deadline, we will begin evaluating the proposals and look forward to providing further details after the conclusion of the selection process,” Bruno said .
MTA Board member Mitchell Pally said he did not think Penn’s homeless problem would negatively affect the redevelopment plans. But, Pally acknowledged, as a public space that’s open around the clock, Penn will remain an inviting habitat for New York’s less fortunate.
“We have to understand, in whatever redevelopment occurs, that this is most likely going to be a recurring situation that is going to be very difficult to significantly reduce,” Pally said. “You may not like it, but it’s not a crime. And you can’t just pick people up and move them.”