By Felipe De La Hoz
If you’ve turned on the news at all or scrolled through social media (provided you’re following New York activist or community organization types) you’ve probably seen images of city sanitation workers, flanked by outreach workers from the Department of Homeless Services and NYPD officers, throwing homeless people’s possessions into trash compactor trucks.
The operation is part of a recently launched effort by Mayor Eric Adams to clear so-called encampments around the city. For those wondering if it really isn’t legal to sleep in a park or on the street, the answer is yes, it is; what makes the distinction here is the presence of property in public space. Essentially, per city law, you’re permitted to rest and sleep in public areas, but if you set out something like a tent or a mattress, which isn’t directly on your person if you walk away, it can be removed.
This isn’t the first time a mayor has undertaken this type of operation, as former Mayor Bill de Blasio conducted his own sweeps. Yet that process began in earnest over seven years into his tenure, while Adams has waited three months to embrace the tactic with enthusiasm, part of a broader push that includes targeted operations to remove homeless people from subways, which have even narrower rules as to a person’s ability to hunker down. There are some technical rules, but it boils down to the purpose of being inside a station or train—if you’re using it for transport, that’s allowed. If you’re using it for shelter, that’s not allowed.
Photo: Jon Tyson
Ben Wasserman, an organizer at the Brooklyn Eviction Defense, a coalition of tenants in solidarity with folks facing eviction, says removing these encampmants is equivalent to evicting a tenant from their home.
“Our stance is that we won’t let these people remove our friends and neighbors from their homes, which are on the street, just to try and funnel them into unsafe shelters. What we are demanding is that the city stop its violent sweeps immediately,” he says.
Wasserman says that the process can be quite humiliating. The Department of Homeless Services (DHS) first gives a notice saying there will be a ‘clean up’ done by either the Department of Sanitation or NYPD. Once the ‘clean up’ begins, DHS asks residents if they want to go to a shelter. Regardless of the answer, they forcibly begin to remove people’s items.
“If the resident tries to resist and stand up on their property, police might arrest them,” Wasserman says. “That’s mostly been how the process works. That doesn’t include the harassment from police in the days leading up to it, and sanitation workers who come and take pictures.”
Wasserman says most of these people’s belongings —their homes, get thrown away.
There are, officially, two separate reasons why the administration is using this approach. The first has to do with the public at large and the use of public spaces, which in theory is made unusable or unsafe by people taking over. The other has to do with the unhoused people themselves, with the argument being that they are being neglected by the city if they’re allowed to keep living on the street, and breaking up the encampments is actually better for them. Adams has leaned hard on this second rationale, saying in his announcement at a press conference that “I’m not going to believe that dignity is living in a cardboard [box], without a shower, without a toilet, living in terrible living conditions.”
The sticking point here is whether these operations really are serving unsheltered populations or whether this is post-hoc rationalization and empty talk. In a statement excoriating the mayor, the City Council’s Progressive Caucus—which includes the majority of the Council, including the speaker—accused him of an “intention to return New York City to the failed broken windows policies of the 1990s.” It is true that relatively few of the people cleared from encampments have accepted placement in shelters so far, in part owing to the perception that these are dangerous and rife with arbitrary restrictions.
More supportive shelters like the safe haven model, which has lower standards for admittance and fewer onerous rules like stringent curfews, are in big demand but in relatively short supply; I toured one in the Bronx at which Adams did a ribbon cutting last week, but when I asked the staff when it would actually be fully operational, they couldn’t say. This, paired with the city’s continuing crisis of affordability, has many asking why some of the root causes of homelessness aren’t being addressed before encampments are broken up. So far, the mayor has brushed away the question, eager to seem like he’s taking action.