“If we are truly invested in preventing and eventually ending this horrific blight of hatred and violence against people who are homeless, we must work to end homelessness itself. This can be accomplished in two phases: immediately offering stabilization beds to New Yorkers living on the street, and providing permanent affordable housing.”
One weekend in mid-March, homeless New Yorkers experienced a series of tragic attacks, including one fatal and one non-fatal shooting by a gunman who had previously targeted sleeping homeless men in a similar fashion in Washington D.C. Over the same weekend, a third homeless man was found dead in the area, although his death was not attributed to the same perpetrator.
While these attacks are horrific, they are not new, and they should not surprise us. In 2019, a series of attacks on men sleeping on the street left four dead, just one of the more shocking instances in a now-regular pattern of senseless violence targeting the homeless community.
Until we loudly demand a radically different approach, New Yorkers tacitly condone the structural violence that made last year the deadliest year on record for unhoused New Yorkers. Last month’s violence represents a confluence of so many of the public safety issues that have gripped our city’s attention and the new mayor’s administration since the new year: gun violence, homelessness and subway safety, hate violence, “quality of life” politics and policing, and the questionable role of policing in community safety. We will not mince words: when our leaders vilify certain populations and disregard proven, evidence-based solutions, the results are deadly.
READ MORE: 2021 Was Deadliest Year on Record for Homeless New Yorkers
At the beginning of the pandemic, national leaders and right-wing media vilified Asian communities at home and abroad, blaming them for the fear we were all experiencing. The result was an unprecedented uptick in anti-Asian violence. Similarly, with New York City experiencing an increase in certain types of violent crime, and New Yorkers understandably fearful and looking for answers, our leaders have vilified the city’s homeless community, using them as a scapegoat and blaming them for the city’s problems. Mayor Eric Adams likened the homeless population to a “cancer” that must be removed to heal the city; that type of fear-mongering and alienation encourages us to view our homeless brothers and sisters as less than human, as the source of society’s ills, and as unworthy of respect, of housing, or of life.
That dehumanization has been hitched to the administration’s messaging around “public safety” —and hit a new low recently when Adams released his “Subway Safety Plan.” Claiming to prioritize the security of “paying customers,” the plan deploys cops to sweep the homeless out of the subway system, even though the vast majority will only end up sleeping on the street, exposed not only to the elements but to violence as well. No matter that the homeless are more likely to suffer violence than commit it, or that most subway violence is committed by non-homeless people (for example, seven of eight attacks during one particularly bad weekend in February).
While Adams’s plan did include extra outreach teams to encourage and connect folks to services, it is doomed to fail because it does not address the root cause of homelessness—a lack of stable, permanent, affordable housing. There was no mention of preventing people from becoming homeless in the first place, or of finding ways to place people into the types of permanent housing that advocates and people experiencing homelessness themselves have been asking for for decades. Further, the empty promises in Adams’s “Subway Safety Plan” are at odds with his proposed preliminary budget—an austerity budget—which actually cuts funding to the city’s homeless services agency, which “would see a fifth of its operating budget and 131 unfilled positions slashed.”
READ MORE: Mayor’s Budget Plan Cuts $615M from Homeless Services, as Subway Crackdown Intensifies
If we are truly invested in preventing and eventually ending this horrific blight of hatred and violence against people who are homeless, we must work to end homelessness itself. This can be accomplished in two phases: immediately offering stabilization beds to New Yorkers living on the street, and providing permanent affordable housing.
Homeless New Yorkers living on the streets or in subways, lobbies, and other vulnerable locations must immediately be offered stabilization beds in hotel rooms, so that they cannot be targeted in their sleep. We have evidence from early in the COVID-19 pandemic that this option works: when offered private rooms with fewer rules and restrictions than shelters have, folks were much more likely to accept and to stay.
After the last month’s tragic attacks, Adams simply doubled down on his “Subway Safety Plan” by increasing outreach teams to encourage people who are homeless to move into the city’s shelters. We don’t need more cops, more empty outreach, or more convincing; we need better options and more housing. People don’t feel safe enough to sleep in the shelters, whether due to the violence they’ve been exposed to there, due to COVID, or any number of other reasons. That’s why folks are living on the street or in the subway in the first place.
Now, Adams is turning his sights to the only other alternative people have when they can’t shelter in subways: the streets. Within weeks of the highly publicized string of assaults on homeless New Yorkers, video footage showed cops and Department of Sanitation workers demolishing an encampment under the Brooklyn- Queens Expressway in Williamsburg. The city provided no clear plan to provide safe, stable housing to the people losing their belongings while RealFeel Temperatures hit 10 degrees Fahrenheit.
While Adams has since claimed to be honoring advocates’ and homeless activists’ demands by increasing the number of Safe Haven beds available, the new site in the Bronx includes 14-bed congregate rooms—which should not be confused with the safe and private setting people are asking for. Changing the definition of “safe haven” and twisting words and promises will not foster trust.
Ultimately, we know—and New Yorkers surveyed agree—that we will not make the city safer by adding more cops, whether they are sent to our subways to remove homeless New Yorkers without any plan for where they will go, or to our streets in the name of reducing gun violence despite a proven history of racist enforcement and violence.
When we criminalize homelessness, as the mayor’s “Subway Safety Plan” does, we are putting the barriers to safety, stability, health, and housing even higher for our neighbors in need. We cannot continue funding policing while defunding the very programs that create the conditions for true safety. Rather than blaming the least fortunate for our problems, we urge politicians and New Yorkers to join the movement that can build a community of compassion, where we uplift the most vulnerable not only with our words but with our our policies, actions, and budget.
Brandon West is a Brooklyn-based labor organizer, a former senior budget analyst for the Office of Management of Budget and City Council, and a 2021 candidate for City Council.
Alicia Singham Goodwin is a Harlem-based researcher and organizer focused on gun violence, drug policy, and decriminalization.
This op-ed was written in conjunction with the Racial Justice Working Group of NYC-DSA, a local branch of the National Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and of which West and Singham Goodwin are members. DSA is the largest leftist organization in the United States — and supports the people’s demand to defund the police and abolish the prison industrial complex. DSA works collaboratively with labor unions and grassroots organizations to build a mass, multiracial, democratic abolitionist movement.