No location better captures the intractability of New York City’s street homelessness crisis than the sprawling confines of Penn Station, where over several months the already large number of homeless people – some with belongings packed efficiently on a grocery cart, others who are poorly clad and prone to screaming matches with an invisible tormentor – seems to have increased recently.
As New York City’s shelter population has grown from around 36,000 in 2009 to more than 62,000 as of December 2019, so has the city’s spending. The vast majority of the homeless are in shelters, but according to the city’s 2019 survey, nearly 3,600 more are sleeping on the streets and in other public places, such as Penn Station. Twenty years ago, the city spent about $960 million to address the homelessness crisis. It now spends $3.2 billion meeting its unique legal guarantee of the “right to shelter” that came about from the 1979 landmark state Supreme Court decision Callahan v. Carey.
Penn Station merchants, retail workers, maintenance personnel, police officers, commuters and transit workers express frustration over what they say is a worsening humanitarian crisis that the city government, despite spending billions of dollars over many years, seems incapable of addressing.
The situation in the city is the culmination of years of rising housing prices, the deinstitutionalization of people with mental illnesses without sufficient community-based alternatives and legal constraints on the government’s response.
Front-line civil servants and nonprofit workers who are familiar with the homeless can describe many cases where long-standing unaddressed mental health and addiction issues make it hard for people to improving their circumstances without significant support.
During a recent evening rush hour, City & State flagged down two Amtrak police officers to attend to an elderly homeless woman with a walker who had passed out on the stairs in the New Jersey Transit section of the station. “You want me to do something?” the older officer asked. “There’s really nothing we can do except make sure she’s not dead.”
With that he went over and in a compassionate tone engaged the woman. “Hello there, you got to give me a sign you are not dead,” he explained, and she responded that she was indeed still alive. “This is the worst I have seen it in my career,” the officer told City & State. “And with the laws the way they are there’s nothing we can do to really help these people, and there are more of them every day.”
Court decisions, citing the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition on “cruel and unusual punishment,” have long established that homeless individuals can’t be arrested for merely being present in a public place, such as a train station or sidewalk. The police can only ask them to move if they could get hurt by the rush of foot traffic or are otherwise violating another law.
The city’s multifaceted response includes providing shelter, social services, outreach services, homeless prevention and even legal support for tenants facing eviction. Preventing homelessness seems to be the most effective way of keeping the homeless population from growing: Since 2013, according to city statistics, providing legal representation for tenants on the verge of losing their apartments has reduced evictions by 40%, keeping more than 100,000 New Yorkers in their homes.
But once New Yorkers do become homeless, finding permanent affordable housing for them is difficult and can take years.
Penn Station, where commuters from New Jersey and Long Island and Amtrak riders from across the country enter the city, provides dry and relatively safe sleeping conditions for those who want to avoid the shelter system. Grand Central Terminal has also drawn people seeking shelter, and the situation has gotten so dire that, as The Wall Street Journal reported in late February, one restaurateur – who happens to be pop star Lady Gaga’s father – is withholding his rent from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority on the grounds that the presence of homeless people is discouraging paying customers from patronizing his business.
"There’s really nothing we can do except make sure she’s not dead." - an Amtrak police officer
It’s not that no one is charged with transitioning the homeless out of the train stations and into shelters. The Bowery Residents’ Committee, a nonprofit provider of homeless services – which has a board stacked with high-powered corporate executives – received a city contract in 2014 to provide outreach to the homeless in subway and train stations. The contract was renewed in 2017, and it is up for renewal again this year.
Some career civil servants who work in Penn Station express irritation that they believe the group is ineffective. “You’re talking about those people with the orange vests?” asked an MTA employee who had not been cleared to speak with the press, “Yeah, BRC, they are worthless, they hide in their (Penn Station) office most of the time and I have seen them swipe the homeless into the subway.”
In an audit released in January on the Bowery Residents’ Committee’s activities from 2015 to mid-2019, investigators for state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli documented “numerous missed opportunities to engage with homeless clients.”
Moreover, DiNapoli found that the city Department of Homeless Services “does not have an adequate process for verifying the accuracy” of the Bowery Residents’ Committee’s data, and instead relies on the group to accurately self-report. (The department has paid most of the $64 million allocated to the committee, with a smaller share coming from the MTA, over six years to conduct homeless outreach.)Without a “process in place to verify BRC’s reported data” DiNapoli said there was no way to know “that homeless clients are being served as intended and that outreach is being directed to where it is needed most.”
At least the outreach workers are a visible presence at Penn Station. In four out of five unannounced observations at other subway stations by DiNapoli’s team, including four stations considered “high risk,” outreach workers were simply not there during the hours they were supposed to be present.
During both scheduled and unannounced visits to the committee’s Penn Station offices, DiNapoli’s investigators documented “numerous instances” where the nonprofit’s employees were “ignoring homeless people knocking on the door of the outreach office in Penn Station, where they sometimes hung a ‘closed’ sign on the door even though outreach workers were inside.” DiNapoli also found a dearth of outreach at Grand Central, including in the dining concourse.
In the fall, months after the release of the comptroller’s audit, an orange-vested outreach team was out and about in Penn Station, and outreach workers were often escorted by an NYPD officer during their rounds. The engagement typicallyconsisted of the police officer clapping his hands to wake up the homeless person, at which point the outreach worker would ask how the homeless person was. Once the worker got an answer the crew moved on to the next person lying on the station floor.
In July, MTA Inspector General Carolyn Pokorny issued a report with similar findings to DiNapoli’s about the Bowery Residents’ Committee’s performance, which she described as “providing, at best, minimal outreach services – often turning away those apparently seeking assistance and, at worst, seemingly ignoring homeless persons seeking assistance.”
In a statement to The Chief-Leader in August, the Bowery Residents’ Committee’s CEO and President Muzzy Rosenblatt partially contested the findings, but also pledged to improve performance. “We’re taking this audit seriously and are reviewing our practices,” he said. “While we think the audit mischaracterized much of our work, we can always do better, and that is our focus.”
The Bowery Residents’ Committee did not respond to City & State’s questions after the release of the critical audits. The city Department of Homeless Services placed the organization on a “corrective action plan” in August requiring more standardized reporting deployments and monitoring, and the department said it is currently conducting a scheduled program of unannounced station visits to monitor outreach worker activity.
The engagement typically consisted of a police officer clapping his hands to wake up the homeless person. The outreach worker would ask how the homeless person was. Once the worker got an answer the crew moved on.
In a recent phone interview, DiNapoli said the Bowery Residents’ Committee had committed to improve their performance but that similar issues in terms of quantifying and measuring results by objective metrics are problematic throughout the entire nonprofit social services sector. “We have looked at services for the underserved and there are similar issues, so this is not limited to BRC,” he said. “Anytime, if you have a contract and it is not producing the expected outcome, do you keep going back to the same contractor or do you look for another contractor?”
DiNapoli said the homelessness crisis is a statewide issue and that after years of relying on the nonprofit sector with at best mixed results, it might be time to consider staffing up civil service jobs like social workers. “It should be looked at,” he said. “Often when you contract out the work, you don’t get as good a result and you don’t get the supervision.”
But boosters of the nonprofit sector point to scandals caused by the negligence of civil servants working for agencies like the city Administration for Children’s Services as evidence that the government doesn’t always do a better job than its nonprofit counterparts.
In July, WNYC reported that the Bowery Residents’ Committee secured its multimillion-dollar contract for homeless outreach in 2014 without a competitive bidding process.
A spokesman for the city told the radio station that the contract was not put out for bid but was “rather awarded via required/authorized source” because the nonprofit was already under contract with the MTA at the time.
In an emailed statement to City & State, city Department of Homeless Services spokeswoman Arianna Fishman pledged to hold the nonprofit accountable: “BRC is an essential partner in our mission to address the citywide challenge of homelessness that built up over decades, including by providing outreach, services, and a helping hand to those living unsheltered. We take the Comptroller’s report seriously, and while we disagree on some of the details, we agree with the spirit of the recommendations. We intend to hold all providers accountable to high standards and remain committed to improving oversight [of BRC] through an enhanced quality assurance program that includes strengthened performance metrics.”
On Oct. 4, the MTA announced the rollout of recommendations from its task force on homelessness report, which confirmed what Penn Station civil servants had been observing. The annual count conducted throughout the subway system found that 2,178 homeless people were using the subway for shelter, up more than 20% from just a year earlier. “This leads to panhandling and sanitary issues on trains and in stations, which are not appropriate places for New Yorkers to be living,” the MTA report concluded.
In response to City & State’s observation of a continuation of these conditions at Penn Station since the MTA report came out, MTA spokesman Tim Minton emailed, “The issue at Penn is almost all Amtrak and the MTA has had discussions with Amtrak about issues in their areas of the station.”
At a Jan. 21 New York City Council hearing, when quizzed about the state comptroller’s audit, de Blasio administration officials testified that the Bowery Residents’ Committee had been given a “corrective action plan” that addressed the group’s contract requirements and also changed the city’s oversight of the nonprofit.
Giselle Routhier, policy director with the Coalition for the Homeless, a nonprofit advocacy organization and service provider, maintained that the problem with the outreach model is not how the nonprofit is doing it, but the very structure of the effort itself. “We hear this from the people on the streets, and it is indicative of the overall problem that outreach providers are not empowered with the tools that they need to actually offer real solutions” to the myriad issues the homeless face, including mental illness and addiction, besides the immediate need for secure shelter, Routhier said.
"For some, the shelters are an extension of the correctional system and for others they become a prison." - Felix Guzman, an advocate for the homeless
Homeless shelters have often provided little besides a roof and a cot to sleep on. With socially disadvantaged and sometimes troubled people being warehoused in close quarters, shelters have developed a reputation for problems, such as property theft and other crimes, that create an incentive to sleep on the floor of a train station instead. “For some, the shelters are an extension of the correctional system and for others they become a prison,” said Felix Guzman, an advocate for the homeless, who himself was homeless for more than 15 months. “Homeless shelters should not be a home as a place to lay your head indefinitely. In my time in shelter, I slept between the dope dealer and the crack dealer.”
Routhier said, historically, all that homeless outreach workers “with the best of intentions” could do was offer homeless people, who may be dealing with mental health issues or trauma from a bad shelter experience, transport to an intake center. “Due to the level of psychiatric disability some people face, the current system is just broken,” she said. What’s needed, she argued, is expedited access “to low-threshold/low-barrier, trauma-informed shelter that’s not the old scary psychiatric hospital setting at Bellevue.”
Some of the Bowery Residents’ Committee’s recent work has demonstrated more success. To address the need for more welcoming shelters, the organization pioneered the creation of so-calledsafe haven shelters, which eliminated curfews and sobriety requirements – though still disallowed alcohol, drugs or fighting in the facility. The Bowery Residents’ Committee startedwith a 19-bed safe haven pilot in 2006. The program has since grown to provide 1,200 beds citywide, with the committee providing 200 of those beds. In the first 18 months of operation, 67 “service-resistant” homeless people came in and some ultimately got sober and were moved to permanent housing. Advocates for the homeless from other organizations praised the model and have called for its expansion. But, if you build it, will they come?
Last fall, in response to the murder of four homeless men in Chinatown, Mayor Bill de Blasio made a fresh attempt to address the homelessness crisis, pledging his latest effort would end street and subway homelessness in five years, in part through adding 1,000 safe haven units.
More controversially, part of the de Blasio administration’s new initiative aims to get people who are homeless out of the subway system by using the threat of a civil court desk ticket from NYPD officers for offenses such as taking up more than one seat to motivate them to seek help. If they accept services, the ticket is voided. (Whereas the Bowery Residents’ Committee’s employees focus on high-activity subway stations, the police focus on subway cars.)
An anonymous letter purportedly penned by NYPD police officers assigned to the transit system said the diversion program was criminalizing poverty. “The homeless are now clearly being targeted as violators of transit rules and being treated differently than any other citizen,” the letter, which was released by the advocacy organizations Human.nyc and Coalition for the Homeless, read. “Can you imagine if we arrested someone in a business suit, on their commute home, with their briefcase on the seat next to them and happened to have forgotten their ID that day?”
At the same Jan. 21 City Council hearing where de Blasio administration officials described efforts at improving oversight, NYPD Transit Chief Edward Delatorre defended the police intervention as a “compassionate” response that was actually getting help to homeless individuals in the subway who would have never sought it without the police interaction.
In an email, Fishman, of the Department of Homeless Services, said that the city has made significant progress in moving the homeless off the streets and that the new action plan will bring further success. “Over the past year, this administration has taken its unprecedented investments and commitments to addressing unsheltered homelessness further than ever before,” Fishman wrote. “With more than 2,450 unsheltered New Yorkers helped off the streets since 2016 through our comprehensive HOME-STAT initiative, including more than 650 who came off the subways into transitional programs and permanent housing, we know our strategies are showing results for so many. But we know (we) can do even better for even more of our neighbors in need. That’s why in December, we announced our action plan to double down on these efforts through new permanent housing, new safe havens, new outreach staff, and new cross-agency collaborative intervention – to ensure these solutions also start to work for those New Yorkers who’ve been the toughest to reach.”
Former City Council Speaker Christine Quinn has spent the last four and a half years as the president and CEO of Win, the city’s largest provider of shelter and supportive housing for homeless families. She said police enforcement is not the answer.
"They told me to be here and here I am." - One anonymous homeless woman, waiting for an absent Bowery Residents' Committee employee
“It is a ridiculous idea,” Quinn told City & State. “We tried sending cops out to help the homeless and it did not work. It is criminalizing poverty. Think of it: Police officers are not trained to be social workers. How is it going to help someone in trauma, or someone who has certainly experienced trauma, to have the first person who approaches them be someone in a police uniform with a gun.”
As Quinn sees it, the city’s deepening homelessness crisis is intertwined with New York state’s decision decades ago to close “mental hospitals that were criminal places and not doing anything to help those who were mentally ill.”
“It was scandalous, so we thought the answer was just to close all the big mental health warehouse-like facilities, without building a community-based response,” Quinn said. “So, people left a bad situation they needed to leave and got put out on the streets.”
Meanwhile, on March 2 at 8 a.m., the Bowery Residents’ Committee office in Penn Station was “temporarily closed” and homeless people were lined up waiting for a counselor who they said had told them to be there by 7 a.m. but was a no-show. (On March 3, Minton told City & State the office had been reopened.)
“It’s not right,” one of the middle-aged homeless women in line said. “They told me to be here and here I am.” When asked to give a name, she responded, “I don’t need trouble with these people. I have been on the street for three years.”
Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that Capalino + Company represents the Bowery Residents' Committee. BRC was represented by the lobbying firm in 2015.
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