“Using police to remove the homeless off the subways, we have to be very careful about that,” Councilmember Diana Ayala said in an interview on WBAI’s City Watch. “Most of these people are not hurting anyone.They’re just looking for a warm place to sleep at night.”

Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

NYPD officers.

When Mayor Eric Adams held a press conference last month to outline the second phase of his  crackdown on New Yorkers sleeping in the subways, he asked for patience from the public.

Subway homelessness was the result of “decades of betrayal,” he said Feb. 18, citing declining inpatient mental health treatment, a lack of available housing and a system so “dysfunctional that it became the normality.”

But he predicted that New Yorkers, perhaps spurred by negative media coverage, would demand immediate solutions. “I guarantee today someone is going to say, ‘Are you going to fix this in a week?,’” Adams said. “Things that happen in decades, we can’t wait decades to fix. But it’s not going to be fixed Monday morning.”

The chair of the City Council committee that oversees homeless services said she is willing to reserve judgment on Adams’ policy until more time has passed, but she is nevertheless concerned by the initial reliance on police without much additional treatment or housing options.

“I think it’s too soon to tell so I don’t want to grade him yet,” Councilmember Diana Ayala said in an interview on WBAI’s City Watch Sunday morning. 

“However, using police to remove the homeless off the subways, we have to be very careful about that,” she added. “Most of these people are not hurting anyone. They’re just looking for a warm place to sleep at night.”

Statistics from the first week of the program demonstrate the emphasis on policing. City Hall said outreach workers engaged people 150 times, while placing 22 people into SafeHavens and other shelter settings. At the same time, cops issued 1,553 transit summonses, ejected 455 people from the trains and made 143 arrests. The Mayor’s Office said they will be releasing additional statistics in about two weeks.

Ayala said people need a safe and secure place to go if they leave the trains, such as a SafeHaven, a facility with fewer restrictions and, typically, more privacy than congregate shelters. Most people staying on the streets and subways say they have tried congregate shelters, which first require a visit to an intake site before a placement elsewhere in the city, before deciding to leave, according to a 2021 report by the Coalition for the Homeless.

“Most people don’t feel safe in a shelter setting and until that’s addressed I don’t believe we’re going to be as successful as the administration would like in getting those folks to accept housing,” Ayala said.

The city’s Department of Homeless Services is in the process of opening nearly 500 new SafeHaven and similarly designed stabilization beds for people coming in off the streets, but face fierce backlash from local communities, even though the facilities provide a space for people otherwise bedding down in public places.

The sites are “useful for people who sleep in subways or parks, but most communities don’t want them so then we have a fair share question,” Ayala said. “Are we building enough of these or are we stagnating because certain communities are resisting them?”

The real solution to ending homelessness is through more affordable and supportive housing, Ayala said. She urged the city and state to speed the creation of more supportive housing and to fill vacancies in existing sites.

She also said she wants to see the city adopt policies that prioritize families in shelter for permanent housing. While people staying in public spaces represent the most visible face of homelessness in New York City, they make up just a fraction of the unhoused population. Families with children account for the majority of city shelter residents. The number of families in DHS shelters steadily declined before and during the pandemic, though families have been rejected from entering the system at a higher rate than in past years.

Ayala said the city should first distribute federal emergency housing vouchers to families in shelters while also allowing people with city rental vouchers to qualify for affordable housing lotteries.

“We need to get out of this hole, and the only way to do that is to ensure that people have priority for Section 8 vouchers,” Ayala said.

Listen to the full episode here: