Capitalizing on a political moment in early May, the governor and the mayor, who have feuded throughout much of the COVID-19 pandemic, joined forces and agreed to close down the subways every night, with no end date in sight. In doing so, they deployed the NYPD to remove their homeless constituents from the trains. They argued that by shutting down the trains, they created an opportunity to engage and help those who sleep on the subways. They wasted no time celebrating these efforts, with the mayor calling it “historic” and the governor calling it a “silver lining” of the pandemic.
They are either woefully misguided or being disingenuous. If they spent any time listening to homeless New Yorkers or outreach workers, they would know that their policies are destroying homeless New Yorkers’ trust in homeless outreach workers’ ability to help them.
Every night since May 6, 1,000 NYPD officers, clearly not trained in conducting homeless outreach, are deployed across the subway system, aided by just 100 outreach workers. Every homeless individual encountered is told to leave by the NYPD. At end of the line stations, homeless outreach teams offer transportation to shelter. At all other stations – of which there are more than 400 – there is no outreach on hand.
Because the mayor and governor brushed aside the demands of homeless New Yorkers and advocates to provide single hotel rooms to those sleeping on the streets and subways (the mayor is providing double hotel rooms to some shelter residents, and is only recently beginning to open “stabilization beds” for those on the subways), outreach workers have very few safe and desirable offers for their clients.
That leaves three possible outcomes for those being removed from the trains.
First, many homeless New Yorkers leave the stations without engaging with homeless outreach, either because outreach teams are not there, or because they do not trust outreach teams due to their association with the NYPD. This first group of individuals, over 1,000 people every night, tell us they wander the streets or get on a bus, waiting for the subways to reopen so they can get some rest.
If those individuals had been working with homeless outreach workers on the subway, they’ve now lost that connection. If they were growing to trust outreach, they’ve now abandoned that trust. Outreach workers themselves warned this would happen, writing, “Deploying NYPD officers to sweep our clients into crowded shelters in the middle of the night with the assistance of outreach workers damages the trust we hope to build.”
This cruelty persisted even on a “Code Blue” night where temperatures fell below freezing. At the same time, despite the dire conditions, the city is continuing a long-misguided policy whereby outreach teams are prevented from offering so much as a blanket or a snack to those they kick to the streets, remaining steadfast in their absurd belief that offering basic necessities discourages people from accepting shelter.
Homeless New Yorkers take the cruel treatment they receive to heart. In a Daily News op-ed, Denis Dugan summed up how he and his peers perceive the subway closures: “Sometimes it seems like that’s what the MTA and the politicians want: for homeless people to give up and feel like they are better off dead.”
Second, in a state of desperation, some individuals accept transportation to shelter. Until publicly shamed into changing their policy by monitoring efforts outside the shelter and horrific photos of men sleeping on the floor virtually on top of one another, most men were being brought to the notorious 30th Street Men’s Shelter. The overwhelming majority of them left shortly after arriving, with many telling us that they feared contracting COVID-19 inside. They told us they’d feel safer sleeping on the streets, and then they walked off into the night.
Tonight, we spent hours outside the 30th Street Men’s Shelter, where the majority of people who “agree” to come to shelter from the subways are being transported.— Human.nyc (@humandotnyc) May 8, 2020
This is Rick. Like countless others we spoke to, he left within minutes, and understandably so.
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These New Yorkers put their trust into outreach teams and were tragically let down. Peter, a man interviewed by New York 1 story, shared “ They kicked me out [of the subway] to go sleep on the floor.” He left the shelter and did not return.
The third and final outcome, in what one would hope is the best case scenario, is that someone is brought off the subways into a shelter, or better yet, a hotel, and they stay there. After three weeks, the number of people who are still in shelter (not in housing) is less than 300, according to vague statistics shared by the city. Those individuals however, may face increased risk of contracting COVID-19, as they were overwhelmingly brought to dorm-style, shared settings. As the city finally caves to the demands of homeless New Yorkers and advocates by opening up “stabilization beds” in hotels, we expect this number to rise. These hotels, especially those with single rooms, will be far more favorable than shelters for people coming off the subways.
Unfortunately, besides those who were lucky enough to be offered a temporary hotel room, the overwhelming majority of people who were removed from the subways are now in a worse position than before. Not only did their most basic needs go unmet, but their faith in the last social safety net available to them, homeless outreach, has been severely damaged.
Moving forward, the city and state must recognize that people who have experienced homelessness are the experts and listen to them, value and validate their experiences, and create solutions with them, not for them.
Listening to homeless New Yorkers would make it clear that involving the NYPD in homeless outreach destroys trust and drives people further from the help they are asking for. As New York continues to reimagine the role of its police, it can look at homeless outreach as a clear example of where police are being inappropriately utilized.
Over the course of his tenure, but particularly in the past few years, the mayor has expanded the usage of racist and anti-homeless tactics to police homeless New Yorkers. Similar to NYPD’s Compstat and “stop and frisk” policies, over-policing inevitably leads to the overcriminalization of Black and Brown New Yorkers, but despite this, the mayor doubled down and then tripled down on his efforts to over-police homeless New Yorkers, who are disproportionately Black and Brown.
As recently as November 2019, he nearly tripled the size of the NYPD’s Homeless Outreach Unit, increasing it from 35 officers to 96 officers while pouring an additional $9.5 million per year into staffing and over $1 million in vans and equipment.
We need to reverse course immediately by defunding the NYPD’s homeless outreach efforts. That effort begins by eliminating the failed Subway Diversion Program, halting street sweeps, and shutting down the Orwellian Joint Command Center. Trained homeless outreach workers are the right way forward, and the more they are associated with the NYPD, the less likely it is that homeless New Yorkers will trust them or want to work with them.
Moreover, defunding the NYPD, its involvement in homeless outreach and beyond, opens up new opportunities for investment in social services. This demand is supported not only by homeless New Yorkers and advocates, but also by current and former DHS staff, who penned an letter that said, “DHS has been complicit in the over-policing of homeless New Yorkers because of the Mayoral directives to deploy NYPD during homeless outreach work.”
If the mayor and the governor spent any time speaking to individuals who sleep on the subways, they would hear that what they want and need is a safe place to stay. Instead, they stand by a false, paternalistic, decades-old argument that people are “service resistant” and don’t want to come off the subways. This argument has been proven wrong countless times.
To meet this need, we must adopt a true Housing First model, moving people from the subways directly into transitional or permanent housing rather than shelter, offering but not requiring engagement in mental health or substance use treatment. The mayor and governor must provide outreach teams with the resources the back-end resources needed to make this a reality. That includes 1) more safe haven beds in locations that people want, with single rooms for privacy, 2) increased development of permanent supportive housing (where year-over-year placements are currently at a 14-year low) 3) more deeply affordable housing that actually allows access to those with the lowest incomes and 4) increasing voucher amounts to Fair Market Rent for voucher holders.
In the meantime, outreach workers should not be discouraged or disallowed from meeting people where they are at and providing them with their basic needs, things like socks or water that most of us take for granted, as well as hand sanitizer and masks given the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.
During our subway monitoring, we watched NYPD remove a man with one shoe into the streets on a night when it was raining. Imagine a world where instead, an outreach team met the individual and got him a pair of shoes. The trust developed in this interaction, even if they were not able to set him up with a place to stay that night, would set the outreach teams up for success rather than failure.
The mayor and the governor have dangerously set all of us back in their attempts to end street and subway homelessness. They must reverse course before the damage done is irreparable.
They can begin by listening to their homeless constituents, rather than parading around as if they are helping, when in fact they are causing more damage than they care to understand.
Josh Dean is the executive director of human.nyc.