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Audit: LIRR homeless outreach workers slacking on duties

In one instance, workers were reportedly observed sitting in the vehicle before leaving without taking time to look for people in need. 

The Babylon LIRR station shown on Jan. 3.

The Babylon LIRR station shown on Jan. 3. A state audit of an LIRR contractor determined workers were not actually doing their job, which was to provide help for the homeless at train stations.   Photo Credit: Barry Sloan

The contractor hired by the Long Island Rail Road to address the homeless problem in and around railroad stations has not been doing its job — including one instance of workers sitting in a parked car instead of canvassing for people in need of help, according to a report.

The audit, issued Wednesday by State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, examined the work performed by Services for the Underserved (SUS) on behalf of the LIRR over an 11-month period concluding Sept. 30. It chided the Manhattan-based agency for “failing to assist homeless people to the extent possible under its contract responsibilities.” It also criticized the LIRR for its weak oversight of SUS, which it is paying $860,000 over five years.

“Our audit found that [the] LIRR’s homeless outreach program has not performed well for the homeless or for the LIRR,” said DiNapoli, who credited the railroad for taking steps to fix the problems identified in the audit. “Tougher oversight is needed to make sure the railroad is not being fed dubious information on homeless outreach. The way we’ve seen temperatures drop over the past week makes it all the more important that LIRR see to it that any homeless [people] at their stations are offered assistance and shelter.”

While taking issue with some of the findings of the audit, LIRR president Phillip Eng said the railroad has taken steps to tighten up its oversight of SUS and will continue to do so.

“Homelessness is a devastating, complex societal problem," LIRR spokesman Aaron Donovan said Wednesday. "The Long Island Rail Road and MTA Police Department share the comptroller’s aspiration to help those in need, which is why we entered into this contract to provide that assistance. The comptroller’s recommendations are welcomed as we always look to improve services, and we are taking steps to address his concerns.”

Auditors both rode along with outreach workers as they visited LIRR stations, and also observed the workers during unannounced visits. According to DiNapoli’s report, the outreach workers’ efforts varied greatly depending on whether they knew they were being watched or not. During announced observations, workers spent an average of 17 minutes at stations, as compared to eight minutes during unannounced observations.

SUS did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

“During one unannounced visit, we observed the SUS outreach team drive up to a train station parking lot and sit in the vehicle for approximately three minutes before leaving. The team neither walked the platforms nor visited the station waiting room,” the report said. “Immediately after the outreach team left, we visited the station office, walked the platforms, and subsequently identified two apparent homeless clients.”

LIRR officials called it an unacceptable, but isolated incident, and that it was not representative of the work performed by SUS.

Auditors found that, despite never leaving their car, the SUS workers reported to the LIRR that they had encountered a homeless person at the station and even provided his name. The railroad had no process set up to verify the information or other inaccurate and incomplete data routinely provided by SUS, according to the report.

DiNapoli made several recommendations to the railroad, including that it establish performance measures and internal controls for SUS, and that it better monitor the company and provide input.

In a formal response to the audit written Dec. 28, Eng said the railroad already complies with some of the recommendations, including setting goals for the number of station visits conducted by SUS each month. Although Eng wrote that the LIRR “disagrees with the implications made” by some of the recommendations, he said the railroad would look to strengthen its oversight of the contractor, including by developing “an internal standard operating procedure.”

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