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Homeless outreach contractor's 'troubling' performance will be probed by MTA

MTA Inspector General Carolyn Pokorny promised a "complete investigation" after echoing concerns detailed in an audit by State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli.

A homeless man is viewed in Penn Station,

A homeless man is viewed in Penn Station, where an outreach contractor hired by the MTA has been accused of routinely ignoring the homeless population. Photo Credit: Getty Images/Spencer Platt

An MTA contractor, which has been paid millions to address homelessness at several railroad stations, ignored homeless individuals lying on the floor outside of its Penn Station offices and told one person to "get the hell out of here," according to new findings by the agency's inspector general.

The observations, outlined in a letter Tuesday from MTA Inspector General Carolyn Pokorny to MTA chairman Pat Foye, paint a "troubling" portrait of the work conducted to date by the Bowery Residents' Committee, the agency's Manhattan-based homeless outreach coordinator.

Pokorny said she would conduct a "complete investigation" of BRC's contract to "fully understand and address the long-term systematic issues plaguing the implementation of the MTA's homeless outreach services programs."

The MTA and BRC did not respond to requests for comment.

The letter echoes many of the concerns laid out in an audit released Tuesday by State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli which detailed how BRC workers provided only "limited outreach" to the homeless, with staff members spending most of their days locked behind closed doors, isolating themselves from the very population they were hired to serve.

But the IG's surveillance, conducted by staff investigators — and Pokorny herself — between July 18 and 23 at Penn Station and Grand Central Terminal goes further than DiNapoli's audit, outlining "troubling" incidents in which BRC staff appear to deliberately dismiss or castigate homeless individuals.

For example, two BRC staffers were seen leaving their office and "walking past a homeless individual lying on the flooring, seemingly ignoring him." On another occasion, two employees were observed yelling by name at a homeless individual lying next to the BRC office, saying "get the hell out of here" and "you can't be here." 

In her letter, Pokorny said the BRC appears to be "providing, at best, minimal outreach services" to the growing homeless population on MTA properties, often turning away or ignoring those seeking assistance from staffers. 

"I personally spent several hours inspecting Penn Station and saw individuals seeking food in garbage cans steps away from BRC’s office and homeless individuals lying on the ground directly outside BRC’s office — the door to which is poorly marked with no signage clearly stating that homeless outreach services are provided within," Pokorny wrote.

The MTA first hired the nonprofit BRC in 2010 to provide homeless outreach services at key stations, including Penn Station, Grand Central Terminal, and some LIRR stations in Brooklyn and Queens. The MTA initially paid BRC roughly $6.7 million over four years, then extended its contract for another 44 months at an additional $5.8 million.

The contract tasks BRC with visiting MTA stations to observe and report homeless activity, and assisting in moving homeless people into appropriate shelters off MTA property.

But IG investigators said they observed "no interaction" between BRC staff and the up to 20 homeless individuals spotted at Penn Station during an eight-hour surveillance shift.

Meanwhile, IG staffers said they witnessed, on at least 20 occasions, homeless individuals unable to gain access to the BRC office, either because no one answered or were turned away. The contractor's office in Grand Central Terminal is located within the lost and found office without any visible signage, the letter said.

On several occasions, investigators said the BRC door at Penn Station was locked with no information on its hours or how to receive assistance. Other times, officials said, BRC staff would post a note on its office door reading: “The BRC Homeless Outreach Office is temporarily unavailable. Don’t worry you can still reach us! Feel free to call us. We are here to help."

IG staffers said they called the telephone number provided by BRC and told an employee that a homeless woman was standing nearby and appeared to need assistance. BRC staff instructed investigators to tell the homeless woman to go to the BRC office but when she knocked on the office door no one answered, the letter said.

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