Mayor Eric Adams enacted sweeps of homeless encampments in a two-week initiative to clean up the streets and move more homeless New Yorkers into congregate-style Safe Haven beds. A move that has angered advocates for the homeless, who are calling for permanent housing as a solution—not just shuffling people around into shelters.
“We’re not throwing people off the street. Let’s be clear here,” said Adams in a presser last Wednesday. “You have a right to sleep on the street. You don’t have the right to build a miniature house. That’s the difference. And so those who are reluctant, that we’re going to continue to talk with, we’re going to do so to build that trust. Because this is about building trust.”
There are an estimated (likely underreported) 47,000 people living in the shelter system across the city in 2022, according to numbers from the Department of Homeless Services (DHS), but that doesn’t include transient people living in the street or on the subways. The latter usually ends up building homeless encampments, or the shelters people hand make for themselves out of various found materials.
Sweeps of these encampments are a coordinated effort between the sanitation, social services, parks, and police departments to clean up public spaces in accordance with the Sanitation Code, said the Mayor’s Office. The first notices were put up Thursday, March 17, and the first encampment visits were Friday, March 18.
The first phase had initial visits to encampments and reinspections across the city. The second phase involved recanvassing and scheduling of the next round of site visits. By Wednesday, March 30, the city teams had visited just short of 300 sites with homeless encampments: 149 in Manhattan, 53 in Brooklyn, 27 in Queens, 22 in the Bronx, and 7 in Staten Island, said the Mayor’s Office.
All together, 239 sites were cleaned up. On Meeker Avenue in Brooklyn, city teams cleaned 10 separate locations and recovered 537 used needles in four of them.
Herbert “Chino” Ernesto Alvarrez, 53, is originally from El Salvador and has been homeless for two years, he said. He set up his hand-built ‘shelter’ on the far end of a skate park behind a dugout and fencing in Tompkins Square Park in lower Manhattan. The area has historically been known to have held many encampments of outcasts, immigrants, drug users, and homeless people since the 1980s, and played a pivotal role in the 1988 riot where police tried to clear the park with force.
“Nobody in their right mind would choose this, well I can’t speak for everybody but for me it’s partly my addiction,” said Alvarrez from his encampment.
Alvarrez said he is a naturalized citizen, but because of legalities and money, he doesn’t qualify for benefits and did not pursue an education. He admitted he struggles with drug addiction and has spent time at Project Renewal, a rehabilitation facility in the city for the homeless and formerly incarcerated. When he was 20, he said he was arrested and convicted for armed robbery, kidnapping, possession of a weapon, and carjacking. He spent about six years in prison in New Jersey before his release in 1994.
He has two adult children and a sister that he doesn’t speak to. His mother died last year, he said. He reasons that living on the street is connected to his mom’s death and a deep feeling of shame for not being more stable and there for his family. “I know what I got to do. I know I got to snap out of it, it’s just like I don’t want to,” said Alvarrez. “And life continues.”
For Alvarrez, this was his first time building an encampment in the park and the first time his family did not know where he was. He’s been alternating between the shelter he made and the subway to keep warm all winter, he said.
Police Department Brian Deputy Chief McGinn said that one man in a tree was arrested during a sweep, four summonses were issued for erecting structures, and a few others were taken to the hospital for being emotionally disturbed. There weren’t any children at the sites, said McGinn.
“Homelessness has its root causes, but our response must be clear. When we see a problem, we must do everything we can to fix it,” said Police Commissioner Keechant Sewell in a presser last Wednesday. “We must ensure that our public spaces are safe, that they are accessible to all, and that everyone in need of a suitable place to stay has access to one.”
The Mayor’s Office said they didn’t provide specific locations for all site visits because they wanted to give “DHS outreach teams space to engage and build trust with people experiencing homelessness.” Trowell said that the city was reportedly relying on 311 calls that complained about homeless encampments to track sites.
The Mayor’s Office also said that they wouldn’t be “heavy-handed” and that NYPD officers have their body-worn cameras on throughout the engagement.
Alvarrez seemed unbothered by the heightened police and sanitation presence around the park in the last two weeks, and has stayed in shelters in the past. “At least they’re less threatening than they used to be,” he said about the sweeps.
Naturally, that was not everyone’s experience and the mayor’s plans were not well-received by advocates for the homeless.
Helen Strom is the supervisor of benefits and homeless advocacy for the Safety Net Project of the Urban Justice Center. The center provides legal services for homeless individuals. The sweeps of homeless encampments are nothing new and former Mayor Bill de Blasio had quietly ramped up sweeps all last year, said Strom.
“I think it’s something every administration does sadly. It’s like a quick show of force that many mayors have chosen to engage in to try and sweep homeless people out of sight,” said Strom. “But you’re not actually doing anything to solve the problem of why people are homeless.”
She said that sweeps are enacting “violence” on homeless people and in some cases retraumatizing them. And that in the current blitz to clear out encampments some people have lost vital documents, medications, belongings, or family heirlooms to the dump trucks.
Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, who is still making a run for governor, and the VOCAL-NY Homelessness Union criticized the sweeps last Friday, April 1. “We should try to put at least as much energy and fervor into housing New Yorkers as we try to do in shuffling around homeless New Yorkers all over the city,” said Williams.
Williams called for less arrests and targeting of the homeless, and for the mayor to focus more on increasing housing vouchers or outreach programs for people living on the streets. “You should have first put forth a plan that could house them, you should have put down a plan that could get them the money they need or a safe place for them to go before you try to take down the encampment,” said Williams to Adams.
Homeless Union Organizer at VOCAL-NY Celina Trowell agreed that the best alternative to sweeps would be providing permanent housing solutions, affordable housing in empty NYCHA apartments, and market rate housing vouchers.
She said that congregate-style shelters with safe haven or stabilization beds, like the ones at Morris Avenue Safe Haven site in the Bronx, aren’t a viable option for homeless individuals because many have had bad experiences with violence or theft. The Safe Haven site in the Bronx has 80 beds, dedicated services, and medical care on-site to address mental health and substance use challenges. It is part of the approximately 500 new low-barrier beds Adams announced in his Subway Safety Plan last month.
“The problem is he [Adams] keeps stressing shelters. Nobody wants to go into a shelter,” said Trowell. Trowell said the safer shelters have single room occupancy (SROs) with a lock and a dorm on the rooms, but many were closed down last summer. She said being outside with “public eyes” gives them a level of protection but it’s not an easy choice.
According to The New York Times, after the encampment and subway safety sweeps aimed at moving homeless individuals, only five people accepted the city’s offer to move into shelters and wraparound services as of last week.
Ariama C. Long is a Report for America corps member and writes about culture and politics in New York City for The Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by visiting: https://tinyurl.com/fcszwj8w