Homeless outreach contractor often ignored people at Penn, Grand Central, audit finds

The contractor the MTA hired to conduct homeless outreach often turned away the needy, according to a new report published Tuesday.

The nonprofit organization Bowery Residents Committee, which was hired to handle homeless outreach at Penn Station and Grand Central Station, slacked on time spent in the field; provided erroneous data to the authority; and ignored people knocking on its doors for help, according to an audit by State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli. The report criticizes the nonprofit as well as the MTA for not having proper oversight in place.

“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. “The nonprofit the MTA hired has turned away homeless men and women seeking assistance. Some outreach workers spent more time in the office than reaching out and filed inaccurate and unreliable outreach reports. The MTA is not getting what it paid for and riders and the homeless are suffering for it.”

The audit is one in a series looking into the MTA’s homeless outreach efforts as the city grapples with soaring levels of homelessness. In the midst of the crisis, many homeless have sought shelter in the MTA’s transit system, while the authority, its board and Gov. Andrew Cuomo have heaped criticism on those individuals for negatively impacting commuters’ experiences and for causing a number of subway delays.

But contractors the MTA has paid to step in have underperformed — DiNapoli’s office found similar issues with a separate contractor paid to conduct outreach on the MTA’s Long Island Rail Road and Metro-North branches. 

Inflated data

The Bowery Residents Committee was found to be engaging with homeless less often than it reported to the MTA while also providing incorrect, inflated figures on homeless contacts and placements, according to DiNapoli. 

The same nonprofit was also tapped more recently by the de Blasio administration for a separate, widely panned pilot program to divert homeless in the subways.

At Penn and Grand Central, the MTA expected the nonprofit’s workforce to be spending 4.5 hours of their shifts reaching out to homeless in the field, though DiNapoli’s audit found that staff were only spending on average 2.2 hours doing such work, with the bulk of their time spent in an office. 

And those office hours were problematic, as well, DiNapoli found. On multiple days, auditors found staff ignoring homeless people who were knocking on the door of the outreach office in Penn Station. Workers occasionally hung a “closed” sign on that door even though auditors found staff to be bustling inside. 

Bowery Residents Committee also provided the MTA with daily and monthly reports on performance that contained errors. State auditors found reports where workers had logged time spent doing homeless counts even though they were observed in the office at that time. 

A monthly report from March 2018 at Penn Station included 118 more homeless contacts and 56 more placements than were logged in the daily reports from that month, according to DiNapoli. Grand Central’s March 2018 report had similarly warped figures, with 145 more homeless contacts and 10 more placements than were logged in the daily reports. 

‘Serious issues’

DiNapoli’s office made recommendations to the MTA: Develop new verifiable performance measures; negotiate with railroads using Penn Station to establish equitable resources to support homeless outreach; and create controls to verify Bowery Residents Committee’s reported data. 

MTA chairman and CEO Pat Foye said in response that the audit raised “serious issues.” DiNapoli found that the MTA has created a new monitoring program that can verify Bowery’s reports. The MTA has also begun evaluating outreach workers while tweaking performance metrics.

“I have requested that the MTA staff promptly meet with BRC to address the serious issues raised in this audit,” Foye said in an audit response letter dated June 5. “Additionally, I will be working with staff to ensure that management is following up on and enforcing the audit’s recommendations, where appropriate, and requesting regular, interim reports to that effect.”

The Bowery Residents Committee and the mayor’s office did not immediately respond to requests for comment.