MTA will deploy cops and state officials in vague plan to address subway homelessness

A train sits in the Metropolitan Avenue station in Middle Village, the last stop along the M line.  Eagle  photo by David Brand.

A train sits in the Metropolitan Avenue station in Middle Village, the last stop along the M line. Eagle photo by David Brand.

By Jonathan Sperling and David Brand

The state will reportedly send MTA cops and staff members from an agency that administers entitlement programs to subway terminals this weekend as part of an initiative to address homelessness in the transit system. But the reported plan’s vague guidelines have confused MTA staff and advocates for people experiencing homelessness.

The initiative to concentrate cops at subway line endpoints, first reported by Gothamist/WNYC, comes a month after Gov. Andrew Cuomo wrote a letter to the MTA, urging the agency he controls to move homeless New Yorkers off the trains.

The state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, which oversees benefit and entitlement programs like food stamps and public assistance, will participate in the program, but their involvement remains unclear even to agency staff.

“We will be helping people seek shelter,” an official told the Eagle on background, but that official conceded that they were not entirely sure what the effort would entail. A spokesperson for OTDA deferred questions to the MTA. 

The MTA did not respond to requests for comment as of press time. 

Emergency shelter services seem to fall outside the purview of the OTDA, which does not provide permanent housing or temporary shelter. The agency does oversee housing supplements for low-income New Yorkers who receive public assistance, but does not actually manage shelters or other properties where homeless New Yorkers could find a place to sleep.  

“OTDA has nothing more, and probably less, to offer than existing city outreach so the effect will be to further criminalize and shuffle people around,” said Coalition for the Homeless Policy Director Giselle Routhier. 

“It’s a total PR stunt by the governor to make it look like he is doing something while not actually investing in the real solutions of housing and supportive housing,” she added.

An empty subway car awaits passengers.  Absolutewade  via wikimedia commons.

An empty subway car awaits passengers. Absolutewade via wikimedia commons.

The initiative would put cops in contact with potentially hundreds of New Yorkers who seek a place to sleep in subway cars and stations. 

The 2019 NYC Homeless Outreach Population Estimate, a point-in-time-count of people staying overnight on the street or other public spaces, identified 2,178 homeless people sleeping on the subway. The number of homeless people in subways increased by 23 percent from 2018, according to the HOPE count.

More than 59,000 people, including 21,299 children, slept in a municipal homeless shelter on Aug. 14, according to the most recent daily census published by the Department of Homeless Services. Tens of thousands of New Yorkers sleep in private shelters or are unstably housed and stay with family, friends or in apartments without actually appearing on the lease.

So-called street homeless, included people who sleep in subway cars, make up a tiny, but visible, fraction of the city’s total homeless population. They are evident on several train lines that end in Queens, particularly the E train, an MTA conductor told the Eagle Friday.

“They’re so established there. It’s the ‘hotel on wheels’ — that’s what we call it,” the conductor said. 

The conductor and a station agent at the Metropolitan Avenue stop both said they had not heard of the state’s upcoming enforcement initiative, but agreed that something had to be done to address subway homelessness.

“I don’t know what [the MTA’s weekend plan] will do,” the conductor said. “It’s just a temporary fix.”