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NYC to aggressively expand homeless outreach program in subway


A man sleeps under a blanket with his possessions on a Lexington Avenue local subway train at Canal Street. (Jefferson Siegel/HANDOUT)

The city is ramping up its efforts to get homeless people off the subway and into permanent housing.

The Department of Homeless Services and the NYPD on Thursday announced they are expanding a series of initiatives to convince thousands of homeless people who take refuge on the subway to accept government assistance.

A major part of that expansion builds on a pilot launched earlier this summer, in which DHS staffers and transit cops would offer assistance to homeless subway riders who violate Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s rules, like lying down across several train car seats or evading the fare.

The pilot program targeted a handful of key areas in Manhattan — and is expanding citywide, with a focus on terminal stations at the ends of subway lines, where many homeless people who sleep on trains end up.

“These are enhancements to our HomeStat program, which launched in 2016 and has enabled us to bring more that 2,200 people off the streets, including 600 from the subways, all of whom have remained off the streets,” said DHS Commissioner Steven Banks.

The city is also in the process of building a “Joint Crisis Coordination Center,” which will give city government access to real-time video feeds of subway stations to determine where they will deploy personnel.

A survey taken last winter showed that there are roughly 3,500 “unsheltered” people living on New York City streets and in the subways, and a majority of them sleep on the transit network.

Banks said many of those who use the subway for shelter do not trust government institutions, but said his department has convinced more and more people to accept help through relentless engagement.

“This is an initiative to divert individuals from criminal justice involvement who otherwise would end up in the criminal justice system,” said Banks. “The approach of Giuliani administration, for example, was to chase, chase, chase the homeless until they disappeared. Our approach is engage, engage and engage.”

The announcement of the increased outreach efforts comes less than a month after a report published by State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli found that the Bowery Residents Committee, a nonprofit hired by the MTA to handle homeless outreach, regularly turned away homeless people.

Gov. Cuomo also made hay out of the issue last month, demanding the MTA quickly reduce the number of homeless people sleeping on trains.

“It can take hundreds of engagements to have success,” said Banks. “The key element of bringing people off the streets is building trust. Sometimes that trust is built with individual police officers. By joining forces, we believe we can have a bigger impact.”