De Blasio touts homeless outreach success as MTA offers some comfort

A man sleeps on a New York subway train as the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues in the subways of New York
A man sleeps on a New York subway train as the outbreak of the coronavirus continues in New York, U.S., April 13, 2020. Picture taken April 13, 2020. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson To match Special Report HEALTH-CORONAVIRUS/NEWYORK-HOMELESS

Mayor Bill de Blasio may be applauding his own administration’s success at conducting homeless outreach while the subway and stations are on shutdown, but the MTA says that it has used out-of-service buses for shelter for the first and last time.

The overnight hours of Saturday saw the MTA once again do something they’ve never done; allowing homeless New Yorkers to take refuge from the unseasonably cold May weather as they are led out of end-of-the-line stations for disinfecting between 1 and 5 a.m. 

But the MTA said it would not happen for a second night in a row, stating that they are a transit agency, not a social service provider.

“The city will continue to be out conducting outreach and as always we urge individuals to accept social and medical services and go to shelters, safe havens or hotels,” interim New York City Transit President Sarah Feinberg said on Friday evening. “We are providing these buses only during this cold snap and expect the city to continue to step up and take responsibility for providing safe shelter for those individuals experiencing homelessness. As we have stated many times, we are transportation providers, not a social services agency.”

Meanwhile, de Blasio is confident that progress is being made on sheltering the subway homeless.

“In just a matter of days, hundreds upon hundreds of people accepting services, coming into shelter. Now we’ll be able to get the mental health services, the substance misuse treatment, now we’ll be able to change the lives of so many of them for good,” de Blasio said on Sunday. 

Ongoing coordination between the city and the MTA included a high percentage of the bus fleet across the city being used as a stationary refuge for homeless people as the temperatures dropped, but the agency said the city would need to continue pulling their weight in offering services and ensuring fewer people depend on the transit system for respite from the elements.

City Department of Homeless Services Commissioner Steve Banks said their approach over the weekend in processing homeless people who agree to accept services at a central intake at Bellevue Hospital was nixed to allow the placing of people “directly from platforms.” From there, Banks said, people were transported to either a hospital or a shelter.

“We think that is giving an additional helping hand to those who may be ready to take the hand but not yet ready to go all the way with that helping hand,” Banks said. “When I got to the Department of Homeless Services in addition to HRA, a little over three years ago, if we could get 5% of the people that we offered help to to actually accept on any given night that was just a huge sign of progress. We’ve got at least half the people not taking the first step.”

On May 8, outreach workers engaged 416 homeless men and women coming out of subway stations during the morning hours of closure. according to de Blasio, 212 accepted services, and 183 went to shelter while the rest went to hospitals.

Saturday night, de Blasio said, 384 were engaged in the subways while 198 accepted services.