The new, formalized procedure essentially codifies what has become a de facto sweeps policy under Mayor Eric Adams, and replaces a 2020 directive that removed the NYPD from most street homeless outreach and clean-ups in the wake of an uprising for police accountability and reform spurred by the murder of George Floyd.

Adi Talwar

New Yorkers experiencing homelessness camping out near Tompkins Square Park in 2021. The site has been the scene of repeated “sweeps” by the city.

After briefly being sidelined under Mayor Bill de Blasio, New York City police are now officially in charge of homeless encampment sweeps, according to new procedures issued last month by the Adams administration.

The updated rules, released Aug. 12, task the NYPD with making the “final determination regarding which sites will be assigned for cleanup” after receiving a referral from the Department of Homeless Services’ (DHS) Joint Command Center, which monitors and fields complaints related to New Yorkers bedding down in public spaces. The new, formalized procedure essentially codifies what has become a de facto sweeps policy under Mayor Eric Adams and replaces a 2020 directive that removed the NYPD from most street outreach and clean-ups in the wake of an uprising for police accountability and reform spurred by the murder of George Floyd.

Police involvement in encampment sweeps has raised concerns about criminalizing homelessness and undermining outreach in place of a response oriented around trust, relationship-building and social services. The 2020 policy revised existing procedures that involved but did not defer to the NYPD and stated that police would only be engaged “in situations where a concern for public safety emerges during the initial or subsequent site visits.”

During his last two years in office, de Blasio supercharged sweeps—in defiance of federal COVID guidelines—but relied on DHS and Sanitation workers, rather than cops, to toss people’s belongings while encouraging them to enter shelter or move along. The NYPD was involved in just 30 percent of the thousands of sweeps conducted between July 2020 and March of this year, Gothamist reported in June.

But cops took on a more prominent role in the city’s sweeps after Adams tapped a new multi-agency task force that included the NYPD—along with DHS and the Parks and Sanitation Departments—to target homeless encampments starting March 18.

At a press conference unveiling the task force, NYPD Commissioner Keechant Sewell described the NYPD’s commitment to “dignity and delivering positive outcomes” while driving homeless New Yorkers out of public spaces used as encampments, “pop-ups” or hotspots—areas where street homeless New Yorkers congregate. 

Since then, the NYPD has been involved in virtually every sweep in the five boroughs, according to data received through a Freedom of Information Law request by the organization Safety Net Project. The police have also played a leading role in the city’s response to people sleeping underground on subway trains and station platforms.

“Mayor Adams’ encampment initiative is connecting New Yorkers to critical social services and keeping public spaces clean every day,” said a spokesperson for the mayor. “He has been clear from the beginning that the NYPD is an integral part of the multi-agency teams carrying out that work.”

From March 18 to Aug. 31, the city’s sweeps task force teams visited 2,405 locations, including repeat visits, and cleared 2,331 of them, according to data shared by the mayor’s office. During that time, city workers talked with 1,442 people at the sites, with 97 accepting placement in a shelter—up from 26 in all of 2021.

The initiative has faced criticism for not really working to connect people with shelter and, ultimately, permanent housing. The sweeps are supposed to come with an offer of a bed in a SafeHaven or stabilization facility, which do not have curfews and feature fewer restrictions than the broader DHS shelter system. But those sites have remained at or near capacity for months, according to data tracked daily by City Limits. The number of people in SafeHavens has hovered between about 1,500 and 1,550 since June 1, the data shows.

The city has not said how many people remained in shelters or how long they stayed after accepting placement, with Adams and Department of Social Services Commissioner Gary Jenkins maintaining that even one night off the street and in shelter is a success. Last month Adams noted that fewer New Yorkers were sleeping or otherwise staying in the subway system, and told reporters the underground enforcement plan was “a win.”

“Every person accepting placement is a success story, and the facts show this administration’s approach is working,” a spokesperson for the mayor added Tuesday.

Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office

Mayor Adams at a press conference March 30 discussing his plan to clear homeless encampments from public spaces.

The NYPD directed questions about current sweeps procedures to City Hall, but previously told City Limits that officers made 18 arrests at above-ground homeless encampments between March 18 and May 4. At least seven of the arrests occurred at the “Anarchy Row” set-up in the East Village, where residents refused to leave.

Meanwhile, in the first month of Adams’ subway enforcement initiative, police made 719 arrests, issued 6,828 summonses, and ejected nearly 2,000 riders.

Advocates for the rights of homeless New Yorkers say making the NYPD the final arbiter on encampment sweeps only strengthens the streets-to-jails pipeline.

“This decision is directly in line with his belief in widely discredited broken windows theories of public safety, which have hit poor and working-class Black and Latinx New Yorkers hardest,” said Karim Walker, an organizer and outreach worker with the Safety Net Project. “These sweeps are designed to break spirits and get people out of sight.”

The decision will only “serve to further criminalize homelessness,” Walker added, while undermining the relationships with outreach workers that are crucial for encouraging people to come in off the streets.

“The fact is that no one should be in charge of sweeps, because sweeps should be abolished,” Walker said.