Over the past four years, the de Blasio administration conducted at least 1,700 operations aimed at moving homeless people from locations where they had set up shelter, according to data obtained via the freedom of information act.
Three dozen locations were targeted five or more times. Two Manhattan locations—7 Laurel Hill Terrace and the corner of West 178thStreet and Amsterdam Avenue—were each “cleaned up” 24 times. (Click here to view a table of the cleanups.)
Perhaps the most contested spot is on Canal Street and 144th Street in the Bronx. It has been targeted 27 times, including 10 times last year.
Last Thursday afternoon, there were no signs of people living at that site, which is located near a harm-reduction center and just a couple blocks from Lincoln Hospital. Just around the corner, however, a tent was wedged between a factory’s brick wall and a pile of possessions.
At 134th Street and Brook Avenue—targeted 12 times over the past four years—a structure made of cardboard and a discarded couch sat wedged against the wall under the Bruckner Expressway.
The effectiveness of the cleanups is not the chief concern of critics, however, who believe sending teams of cops, sanitation workers and outreach personnel to roust people from their makeshift homes is punishing victims rather than addressing the homelessness problem.
“While we understand that sometimes, encampments can cause health and safety risks and may need to be dismantled, using Department of Sanitation and NYPD resources to simply push people further towards the margins by forcing them to ‘move along’ and discarding all of their belongings in the process, is not a solution, nor is it humane,” says Catherine Trapani executive director of Homeless Services United.
A legal gray area
The de Blasio administration says its approach to cleanups is part of what has allowed New York City to avoid the large, outdoor encampments that characterize the homeless crisis in other urban areas.
“In our city, we don’t allow obstructions or encampments and coordinating across agencies we address them quickly whenever we find them,” Isaac McGinn, a spokesman for the Department of Homeless Services (DHS), told City Limits. “At the same time, we’re focused on continuing to build on the relationship and progress our outreach teams have developed with unsheltered individuals, encouraging them to accept services and transition off the streets.”
The cleanups occur in a legal gray area. The administration acknowledges that it is not illegal to sleep outside and that they cannot force homeless people to accept services. DHS says it conducts cleanups only when the situation presents a danger to the homeless people living there or others.
However, something as simple as obstructing a sidewalk can be considered dangerous.
“It’s not a crime but they are treating it as a crime,” says Beth Haroules, a senior staff attorney at the New York Civil Liberties Union. “We don’t think a police presence is appropriate. These are social issues.”
Haroules says the increased police presence in the subways, including the 500 new officers authorized in the latest MTA budget, creates the potential for homeless harassment underground even as cleanups continue on the surface.
The pace of clean-ups has increased over time, from 155 during the last seven months of 2016 (the data begins on April 29 of that year) to 427 in 2017, 519 in 2018 and at least 617 last year (the data ends on December 11.)
“The fact that we’re seeing a year-over-year increase is alarming,” says Josh Dean, co-founder of Human.nyc, an advocacy organization. “Similar tactics, meant to criminalize and deter/move homeless people out of sight and out of mind, are popping up across the city, too.”
Geography of cleanups tracks 311 complaints
The city’s terminology distinguishes between an “encampment” (“a fixed, visible structure where two or more individuals gather, often under bridges or in remote areas”), a “pop up” (which “appears quickly and is usually temporary” and “includes some level of debris such as carts, cardboard”) and a “hotspot.” The latter is “a location where two or more homeless individuals are gathered without a structure.”
Of the cleanups between April 2016 and December 2019 where the type of structure was specified, 265 were encampments,1400 were popups and one was a hotspot.
A huge share of the cleanups—750 of them—were in Manhattan. There were 429 cleanups in Brooklyn, 300 in the Bronx, 179 in Queens and 13 in Staten Island.
“What the sweep data shows is that Bill De Blasio shares far more with Bloomberg than his ego will permit: in this case, get homeless people out of sight to ensure that wealthy people aren’t burdened by their presence,” said Craig Hughes with Safety Net Project of the Urban Justice Center, whose FOIL request obtained the data.
The borough locations for cleanups broadly track 311 calls complaining about “homeless encampments.” Of the 38,200 such calls since 2010, nearly 23,500 concerned locations in Manhattan.
And the pace of such calls is increasing. After dropping two years in a row, the number of 311 calls about encampments soared 52 percent in 2019.
“We have a demographic that is discomforted by homeless people and they’re calling for a public-policy response that is not the right response,” says Haroules.
Consequences of clean-up
The cleanup operations typically involve DHS and the police, with Sanitation, the Parks Department, a Business Improvement District, or one of the local transit agencies involved depending on the property in question.
“[A]head of such joint operations, we provide notice to street homeless New Yorkers, outlining the process, next steps, and the options available to them,” McGinn continued. “During these efforts, outreach teams are present, engaging those in need, recognizing their essential humanity, and ensuring any valuable property is respected and protected.”
Advocates, however, say that is regularly not the case.
“We meet people who are traumatized by having NYPD, DSNY, and DHS discard their belongings and move away from one of the few places they feel safe. We’ve witnessed cleanups and they are absolutely heartbreaking,” Dean says. “People have had vital documents like birth certificates, identifications, and medications discarded against their will.”
DHS says its outreach teams exercise care in separating garbage from possessions that, while appearing worse for wear, are important to the homeless people who own them. But it is not clear that staff from other agencies involved in the cleanups, like the police, are careful.
“The loss of personal property is really concerning to people who are homeless because the property they have with them on the street might be everything they have in the world,” Giselle Routhier, policy director at the Coalition for the Homeless, says.
The allegation that homeless sweeps destroy private property is not a new complaint. In early 2017, the New York Civil Liberties Union and the advocacy group Picture the Homeless settled a lawsuit against the city by three homeless New Yorkers who, the union said, “were kicked awake and whose belongings were thrown into a trash compactor by police and sanitation workers.”
The NYCLU and Picture the Homeless have a separate, ongoing case before the city’s Commission on Human Rights alleging that the NYPD has an illegal policy of telling homeless people gathered on East Harlem street corners to “move along.”
There are conflicting reports as to how often homeless people face legal sanctions when a cleanup occurs. DHS says that’s rare. But advocates say it is not unheard of for people to be given a criminal Desk Appearance Ticket or civil summons as their makeshift home is removed.
However, advocates say the bigger issue is that homeless people avoid summonses by moving on, and in doing so, severing relationships that have been built up with outreach workers.
“Our people generally move a few blocks away from wherever they got the notice,” Dean says. “I remember once I saw a woman the day she got the notice, and then I couldn’t find her again for a month or two afterwards.”
What kind of outreach?
Advocates say the solution to homeless encampments is for the city to stick to the outreach approach, rather than a use of force, and provide outreach teams with the tools they need to entice people off the streets.
“Practically speaking that means providing homeless people with access to Safe Havens and most importantly, permanent housing. If outreach teams don’t have enough of those resources to offer in the areas where clients need them, not much else is likely to change,” says Trapani. “Instead of focusing energy on chasing homeless people from place to place, we urge the city to focus its energy on making good on their commitment to add additional safe haven beds citywide so we can present people with real options to move to.”
DHS says it is working to make those options available. It points to its Journey Home program, announced in December, which will provide more Safe Haven beds – places to sleep that come with fewer barriers and rules than traditional shelters – and other resources to try to reduce street homelessness.
Advocates welcome the additional help, but are concerned that it comes paired with intense data-gathering and surveillance. Journey Home was announced only after an uproar greeted a previous street-homelessness policy unveiled the previous month that focused on getting city workers and family members to provide information on people sleeping outdoors. Every time the city brags about its Street Homeless Joint Command Center, advocates cringe.
“By enveloping outreach workers into policing operations, the city destroys the opportunity for those workers to actually build trust with people on the street,” Hughes warns. “It turns outreach teams into an arm of the police when they should never be seen that way.”
A political hot potato
While some elements of homeless policy—like the availability of rental vouchers to the homeless, and the set-aside of affordable-housing units for people leaving shelter—are on track for change, there’s little sign the city’s approach to homeless encampments is likely to be revamped.
Even in the City Council’s recent voluminous report on homelessness, the topic gets zero attention, perhaps because Councilmembers’ offices get as many complaints about people sleeping on the street as 311 does.
“This is always a challenging thing,” Routhier says, “because it requires a shift in thinking about homelessness from a quality-of-life issues for the people who are not homeless to a tragedy for the people who are.”
This listing of homeless-related cleanups was released via the freedom of information law: