The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), and homeless New Yorkers, have been shortchanged by the nonprofit hired to provide outreach services at Penn Station, Grand Central and elsewhere, according to an audit released today by New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli.
“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.’
Since 2010, the MTA has contracted with the nonprofit Bowery Residents’ Committee (BRC) to provide homeless services at Penn Station, Grand Central, and outlying Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) and Metro-North stations. The contract calls for BRC to conduct homeless counts, outreach and placement, and report to the MTA daily, weekly and monthly. BRC’s reports are used in the MTA’s Homeless Outreach Program (HOP) database.
DiNapoli’s auditors found that BRC was only doing a fraction of the work it is required to do under its contract. The MTA officials told auditors they expect BRC workers to spend most of their time — 4-5 hours per 8.5 hour shift — performing outreach services. DiNapoli’s auditors found workers at Penn Station, Grand Central and other MTA rail stations spent, on average, 2.2 hours per shift doing outreach. They spent the bulk of their time — 4.5 hours on average — in the office.
Auditors made announced and unannounced visits to observe outreach workers at Penn Station, Grand Central and commuter rail stations and found:
- Homeless seeking services ignored. On multiple days, auditors saw numerous instances of workers 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.
- Workers kept outreach office closed to homeless. On one visit, around 1 p.m., workers inside the outreach office put up a sign saying closed until 7 a.m. Not long after, two homeless individuals came seeking services. One chose to sit and wait. At 1:51 p.m., outreach staff, who were still in the office, replaced the sign with one that said the team was out of the office and to “locate an officer within the station.’
- Homeless left unassisted. During another visit auditors saw multiple unserved homeless posing potential hazards to themselves and LIRR riders. Four were lying on the floor, including two stretched across a busy passageway and one sleeping in front of a MetroCard machine. Auditors observed a worker leave the outreach office and post a sign saying outreach workers were on the floor in orange jackets, though none were in sight.
- Minimal time spent on outreach efforts. During five unannounced visits auditors saw workers spend just over one hour per shift (14 percent of their time) doing outreach. One day consisted of a single outreach effort lasting 39 minutes. During announced visits, workers spent about 2 hours per shift on outreach and more time on homeless counts and less time in the office.
- Inefficient time management reduces outreach. One day workers spent half their time (4.25 hours) in the office, 43 minutes doing outreach and over three hours taking a client to a shelter in Brooklyn where they learned the client already had a housing assignment and could not be accepted. Workers are required to check the city’s shelter assignment database before attempting a placement.
- Inadequate outreach impacts rider services. During lunch hours 11 a.m.-2 p.m. there was limited or no outreach efforts and much of the seating in Grand Central’s dining concourse intended for customers was taken up by homeless clients.
- Outlying Stations minimal outreach, reduced coverage. At outlying Metro-North Railroad and LIRR stations within New York City, auditors found, in all cases, that outreach efforts accounted for far less than the 4-5 hours per shift the MTA expected. When auditors saw no outreach at Jamaica Station they were informed that outreach efforts at LIRR stations within NYC were only taking place on overnight shifts Sunday through Thursday. There was no documentation to support this reduction in coverage and to the contract terms.
BRC daily reports are entered into the MTA’s database, but they contain inaccuracies and are incomplete. For example:
- Auditors saw two Grand Central outreach workers report to work at 7:45 and 8:15 a.m. They later reported that they conducted homeless counts from 7-8 a.m. and did outreach services from 8-8:59 a.m.
- Auditors saw Grand Central outreach workers in their office from 7-7:59 a.m., who reported that they spent this time conducting a homeless count. Workers were again in the office, from 9:21-10:17 a.m., yet reported they were conducting homeless outreach services at that time.
- Auditors did not observe any placements during a morning shift, although workers later reported a placement to the MTA. When auditors went to verify it, they found a placement occurred, but not that day and not to the program BRC listed.
- Similar discrepancies were found at Penn Station and outlying stations.
When auditors found BRC’s data didn’t add up, they checked its monthly reports against their daily reports and found more problems. For example:
- BRC’s March 2018 report for Penn Station had 118 more homeless contacts and 56 more placements than the daily reports.
- BRC’s March 2018 report for Grand Central had 145 more homeless contacts and 10 more placements than the daily reports.
MTA has no way to verify the data BRC reports. Entering inaccurate information into the MTA’s database weakens the tool for analyzing trends and improving services to the homeless.
At Penn Station, MTA and Amtrak have separate contracts with BRC to conduct outreach to homeless on their different floors. Amtrak and MTA have a coordinated outreach strategy and conduct joint tours, but Amtrak’s contract only provides outreach for one shift a day. For the other two shifts, outreach falls to workers under the MTA’s contract, which calls for outreach workers to focus on the LIRR level. However auditors observed that MTA-contracted workers spent much of their time, sometimes more than half, on the Amtrak level at the expense of LIRR-level outreach.
BRC often did not have the number of outreach and supervisory staff that the 14-month contract required. The contract requires BRC to have three independent living specialists, two clinical supervisors, three shift supervisors, and 25 outreach specialists (18 for Penn Station/LIRR and seven Grand Central/Metro North). The audit found that for months on end, positions went unfilled, with employee vacancy rate of 21 percent in three months of the contract, a violation of its terms.
DiNapoli offered a number of recommendations to the MTA including that it:
- Develop new verifiable performance measures for its contract with BRC and hold the nonprofit to them.
- Monitor outreach workers to ensure they are providing the services to the homeless.
- Negotiate with railroads using Penn Station to establish equitable resources to support homeless outreach.
- Create controls to verify BRC’s reported data and use it to inform decisions
In response to the audit, the MTA has created a monitoring program, and begun evaluating outreach workers and amending its metrics for performance of homeless outreach. The MTA’s full response is included in the audit.
The audit can be read and downloaded here.
DiNapoli released audits earlier this year that focused on homeless outreach programs overseen by LIRR and Metro-North Railroad at outlying commuter rail stations. The findings of all three audits of homeless outreach programs on MTA properties are summarized in a wrap up report that was also released today and is available here.
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