Months into his first term, New York City Mayor Eric Adams is touting early progress in his administration’s efforts to clear the streets of homeless encampments.
“I have said since we launched this initiative that every New Yorker deserves dignity, and we are demonstrating that it is possible,” Adams said in an emailed statement.
The administration’s goal is to put homeless New Yorkers on a path to permanent housing and stability, as part of a larger plan to improve public safety. The mayor’s office pointed to the latest encampment sweep numbers as a sign that it is keeping its promises.
But homeless advocates say this approach is a return to misguided tactics. They argue that the police-focused strategies the city is using to persuade people to go to shelters are actually perpetuating the decades-long crisis.
“All they’re doing is doubling down on failed policy,” said Jacquelyn Simone, policy director at the New York-based Homeless Coalition. “Policing and criminalization are not the answers to what is fundamentally a housing and mental health crisis.”
Homelessness in New York is at its highest level since the 1930s, during the Great Depression, according to the Coalition for the Homeless. Every night, more than 48,000 homeless people sleep in the city’s shelter system in February.
Thousands of homeless homeless people sleep outside or in subway stations every night, according to the organization.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
City completed 733 cleanups in six weeks
From March 18 to May 1, the city conducted 733 cleanups across five boroughs — a number that includes multiple visits to the same sites — according to data sent to NPR by the mayor’s office. After meeting 264 people, 39 of them accepted temporary accommodation.
Proponents say the number of people placed in shelters as a result of these encampment sweeps represents only a small fraction of those who voluntarily enter municipal shelters.
Simone calls the encampment sweeping up a huge waste of resources that could instead be used to meet the critical needs of the homeless population.
“It is politically much more expedient to use the police to push people back rather than to address the root causes,” she said. “The reality is that people who are on the streets have often tried the main shelter system in the city, especially in the collective shelters, and did not feel safe there, did not feel like these facilities met their needs. So trying to force people back into a system of shelters that many have made a conscious decision to avoid will not succeed.”
The multi-agency initiative is sending NYPD officers and workers from the city’s sanitation and homeless services to perform the sweeps. Campsite residents are given 24 hours’ notice of scheduled cleanups, according to city officials. The sweeps led to the arrest of homeless activists.
Adams said in an emailed statement: “Our teams work professionally and diligently every day to ensure that every New Yorker living on the streets knows they have a better option while ensuring that all those who live in or visit our city can enjoy the clean public spaces that we all deserve.”
Homeless advocacy groups say what Adams calls a “best option” is far from it. In municipal shelters, there are strict curfews and shared rooms – a risky environment during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It really works as an extension of the prison system,” said Karim Walker, an outreach specialist at Human.nyc who works closely with homeless New Yorkers. “There’s very little privacy, not much in terms of accountability for your well-being” and “a boatload of regulations that a lot of people find a bit annoying,” he said.
Proponents say they want to see permanent investment in housing
Simone, from the Coalition for the Homeless, said the city’s police-focused approach not only doesn’t work, it’s counterproductive.
The sweeps, she said, “make it more difficult for trained outreach workers to build trust with people so they can come inside, because his outreach teams are seen as just a branch of the police”.
If people are repeatedly displaced, she added, it also complicates the efforts of social service professionals to gain their trust.
Advocates want to see policies that invest in permanent housing.
“That’s really where the administration should be focusing — not on this show of force,” Simone said. “Trying to force people back into a shelter system that many have made a conscious decision to avoid will not succeed.”
Last month, Mayor Adams said new funds would go to alternative accommodation beds, including shelter and stabilization beds. These options generally offer smaller occupancy rooms and fewer rules, including no curfew.
Shelter and stabilization programs are “synonymous to some degree,” Walker of Human.nyc said, but shelter facilities tend to allow longer-term stays — up to a year in some cases. Beyond permanent housing, advocates say shelter and stabilization programs are the second-best option available to homeless people.
But the demand for these specialized beds is greater than the supply, according to the Coalition for the Homeless; around 2,500 stabilization and refuge beds are often occupied, with thousands of New Yorkers sleeping outside. Adams’ pledge would increase the number of alternative accommodation beds to 4,000.
To give sheltered homeless people a “minimum of privacy”, Walker says no more than three people should occupy a room.
Dave Giffen, the coalition’s executive director, said in a statement that the new funding is a “partial small step” in the right direction.
“Without a comprehensive plan to create much more permanent affordable and supportive housing that respects the dignity of all homeless New Yorkers, these piecemeal efforts are only destined to get off the road” , Giffen said. .