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MTA watchdog authority says agency's homeless plan 'just isn't working'

A view of a homeless person inside an

A view of a homeless person inside an MTA train during the coronavirus pandemic on May 16 in New York City. Credit: John Nacion/STAR MAX/IPx/John Nacion/STAR MAX/IPx

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s efforts to address homelessness throughout the transit system — including in Penn Station — “just isn’t working,” according to the findings of an 11-month investigation conducted by the authority’s watchdog.

The criticism came in a report issued Monday by MTA Inspector General Carolyn Pokorny, who noted the COVID-19 pandemic has added urgency to the need to address the long-standing problem of homelessness in the transit system.

“The situation has caused members of the public currently sheltering at home to wonder whether the subway will be clean, safe and secure when they themselves are allowed to return to work, school, medical appointments, and other activities of pre-pandemic daily life,” Pokorny wrote. “Any reluctance by riders to return to the subway system will hinder the region’s return to economic and social well-being, while prolonging the pandemic’s devastating financial toll on the MTA.”

But despite intensified efforts by the state, and the MTA, to address homelessness in the transit system in recent years — including through the creation of an interagency task force and hiring of 500 new MTA police officers — Pokorny said the authority’s outreach efforts continue to be “unsuccessful.”

Pokorny said the MTA has been unable to collect reliable data on how many people are sheltering in the transit system, and that complaints about homeless people and train delays caused by them have continued to climb.

Pokorny suggested that a key reason the MTA’s attempts to address the problem have fallen short is that the agency is out of its element.

“To resolve this problem is beyond its expertise and mission as a transportation agency,” Pokorny wrote. “The MTA is not a social services agency. It is a transportation agency — and one that is facing a critical point in its history. The MTA is in serious financial straits and grappling with a pandemic on top of the enormous responsibility to maintain and upgrade its aging infrastructure and provide a safe, clean, well-run system that riders are confident in using.”

MTA spokeswoman Meredith Daniels said the authority is "in full agreement . . . this important work is the obligation of the city, and should not rest with a transportation agency." 

"We appreciate the IG's work on this matter, and will continue to support and urge the city to step up and provide homeless New Yorkers with access to critical services as the subway is not a substitute for a shelter," Daniels said.

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