Homeless in Peril

Fatal attacks and possible shelter evictions—where else is there to go?

Stephon Johnson | 10/10/2019, 9:25 a.m.
“What happened over the weekend shakes the conscience of who we are as New Yorkers,” stated New York City Mayor ...
Picture the Homeless and Hunter College to identify vacant properties

“What happened over the weekend shakes the conscience of who we are as New Yorkers,” stated New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. “We are sending experts to the neighborhood to provide support during this difficult time, and will continue to assess how to prevent tragedies like this from happening in the future.”

The mayor was talking about the brutal beating of five homeless people in Chinatown by 24-year-old Randy Rodriguez-Santos, who himself is homeless. Four of the beaten died and another is still in the hospital with critical injuries. As of press time, three of the victims have been identified (55-year-old Nazario A. Vazquez Villegas, 83-year-old Chuen Kok and 49-year-old Anthony L. Mason).

In the aftermath of the incident, de Blasio announced a plan to help transition homeless people off the streets. The plan includes homeless outreach with licensed clinicians working with clients on the streets and assessing risks, and psychiatrists performing on-street psychiatric evaluation, providing help as needed and connecting the homeless to detox and rehabilitation programs.

But what about the homeless finding homes?

Two years ago, de Blasio said his Turning the Tide on Homelessness plan would decrease the number of homeless people in the shelter census by 2,500 in 2022. However, a Coalition for the Homeless study published earlier this year concluded that the number of homeless individuals in the shelter census would increase by 5,000 people in the same time span. The study also states that as of 2017, there were 307,258 low-rent units in the city, but there were 867,811 households in need of low-rent housing (households with incomes less than $34,000).

The report gave the mayor a failing grade on creating sufficient housing for homeless New Yorkers.

In the subway system alone, the homeless population has grown by more than 20 percent in the past year (nearly 2,200), according to the Metropolitan Transit Authority. The agency said that it’s a “disproportionate increase compared with rates experienced citywide and is not sustainable by the system.” MTA officials said that they’re working on outreach to help the homeless individuals who call their system home.

“The MTA is working with our Task Force Partners to tackle homelessness in our system,” said MTA Managing Director Ronnie Hakim in a statement. “Together, we have developed a series of immediate, comprehensive recommendations to address this issue head on and ensure vulnerable New Yorkers have access to the support they need.” Meanwhile, the city reported last week that the New York Police Department is using surveillance cameras to watch over homeless New Yorkers at more than 10 subway stations.

But even if a homeless person makes it to the shelter system, they aren’t safe.

Sixty-eight families could be evicted from a shelter in Crown Heights because the Bushwick Economic Development Corporation, who operates the shelter, says it owes the city $500,000 in back payments. Through a lawyer, BEDCO said this is part of City Hall trying to slowly phase them out as a shelter provider for the past two years. The city is blaming the Crown Heights shelter issue on BEDCO not filing paperwork.

In 2016, two children died at a BEDCO shelter in the Bronx after a radiator exploded in an apartment. While they weren’t at fault, their sites were cited for over 2,000 housing code violations. Requests to get city officials to comment on the BEDCO situation weren’t answered by press time.

But between the decision to close Rikers Island and moving that population to jails around the city, providing shelter for the homeless, and NIMBYs (Not In My Backyard) fighting against any possible shelters in their neighborhoods, the homeless are stuck where they are.

Later this month, the New York City Council will vote on renovating the current locations for the upcoming jails to replace Rikers. Insha Rahman, director of Strategy and New Initiative at the Vera Institute of Justice, said that the council needs to vote “YES” on the legislation.

“On October 17, the New York City Council has the chance to make history by approving to replace the decrepit, decaying and inhumane jails that currently exist in the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn and Manhattan. We strongly urge the City Council to vote yes,” stated Rahman. “This is a critical step in the fight to close Rikers Island and end mass incarceration. New York City will go from having 11 operating jails today to only four citywide and cut our jail capacity by over 70% from 14,000 beds today (of which half are empty) to fewer than 4,000 in the future.”

But a recent letter from the Progressive Caucus addressed to the mayor demanded community investments in any plan involving closing Rikers Island and called the mayor out for not having a clear plan in the aftermath of Rikers closing. In a statement VOCAL-NY Civil Rights Campaign Director Nick Encalada-Malinowski said that the city has failed in not connecting several issues that plainly had a connection.

“The failure of the City to address overlapping crises of homelessness, public health and extreme poverty through social services development—while simultaneously increasing investments into policing and jails—has created the current reality where the impulse is to arrest and/or incarcerate and then ask questions later,” said Encalada-Malinowski. “This is evidenced by the mayor’s plan to close Rikers Island—two years in the making—which does not include a single dollar for community investments into the neighborhoods that most need them.”