The contracted workers hired by the MTA to address homelessness at several railroad stations, including Penn Station, have spent most of their time in their offices — sometimes behind locked doors as homeless people sit outside waiting for help, according to a new report.
The audit released Tuesday by New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli found that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s homeless outreach contractor, Manhattan-based Bowery Residents Committee (BRC), “is providing only limited outreach” that is well below the contracted specifications.
“Straphangers and commuters can see firsthand that homelessness is a growing problem in the transit system, but the MTA is not doing enough to oversee its own outreach program,” DiNapoli said in a statement. “The MTA is not getting what it paid for, and riders and the homeless are suffering for it.”
The audit, which reviewed the contractors’ performance over a four-year period beginning in 2015, found that, on average, workers spent about 2.2 hours per shift providing actual outreach services to homeless people, or about 26 percent of their time. In comparison, workers spent four to five hours per shift, or about 53 percent of their time, in their offices, including one at Penn Station. They often appeared “to intentionally close the office and isolate themselves from active outreach,” according to the report.
“In several instances, clients repeatedly knocked upon the office door, but received no response despite the presence of staff within the office,” the report said.
A BRC spokeswoman declined to comment on the report, referring questions to the MTA.
In a statement, MTA spokesman Tim Minton said the agency appreciates DiNapoli's focus on the issue and is "bringing all available resources to address" the issues raised in the report.
“The MTA is taking aggressive action to address the troubling performance issues on the part of our contractor brought to light by this report, and has already implemented the recommendations in the audit," Minton said. "The MTA will tighten oversight of the BRC’s outreach workers, and will hold them accountable for results."
The MTA first hired the nonprofit BRC in 2010 to provide homeless outreach services at key Long Island Rail Road and Metro-North stations, including Penn, Grand Central Terminal, and some LIRR stations in Brooklyn and Queens. The MTA initially paid BRC about $6.7 million over four years, then extended its contract for another 44 months at an additional $5.8 million. BRC is tasked with visiting MTA stations to observe and report homeless activity, and assisting in moving homeless people into appropriate shelters off MTA property.
The audit also found that BRC's reports to the MTA about its work are often inaccurate or incomplete, and that BRC workers often conducted a lot of homeless outreach at Penn Station at areas used by NJ Transit and Amtrak, despite only being contracted to serve the MTA.
DiNapoli’s office made several recommendations to the MTA, including that it work with BRC to meet its contracted performance measures and establish new, quantifiable measures, and that it better monitor BRC to ensure the contractor has adequate staffing and is providing sufficient levels of service.
In his formal response to DiNapoli, MTA chairman Patrick Foye said he directed his staff to meet with BRC “to address the serious issues raised” in the audit. MTA chief safety officer Patrick Warren, in a separate letter, said the MTA already complies with most of the recommendations made in the report, and in January, reorganized its management of the agency’s homeless outreach program.
The MTA is “reassessing and amending performance metrics, rebalancing resources, and introducing a heightened level of command and control over the various elements” of the program, Warren wrote.
The audit was released a day before the MTA Board is set to vote on Wednesday on a major reorganization plan that entails consolidating several departments and potentially eliminating up to 2,700 jobs. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo last week called on the MTA to amend the plan to address the growing number of homeless people in the system — "a major outstanding issue for the MTA."
MTA Board Member Kevin Law, who represents Suffolk, on Monday said that any new initiative to combat homelessness at subway stations should be expanded to include the LIRR. Law said he had been in talks with state and local lawmakers about particularly "nasty, aggressive panhandling" at Babylon station.
"I know most people think it's just a transit system issue, but it's very much a suburban rail issue as well," Law said.