You may hear people using the terms “homeless” or “unhoused” interchangeably. The term “homeless,” while more common, can have derogatory connotations. It might imply someone is ‘less than’ because they have no place to live. The term “unhoused” implies that a person is simply not housed; advocates of the term say it challenges the moral and social assumption that everyone should be housed in the first place.
By Andrea Pineda-Salgado
On a sunny Friday afternoon, Sinthia Vee frantically gathered her belongings. She picked up her art supplies, blankets and clothes and placed them in a clear plastic bag for safekeeping. Vee, homeless for two years, is living in a blue camping tent on “Anarchy Row,” the homeless encampment located alongside Tompkins Square Park on 9th Street between Avenues A and B. The NYPD had blocked off Anarchy Row and around 20 officers were standing across the street from her tent: it seemed like a sweep was about to begin and Vee was at risk of losing home.
Over the past couple of weeks, outreach workers from the Department of Homeless Services and NYPD have been clearing out homeless encampments around the city — more than 300 have been cleared so far. This comes after Mayor Eric Adams pledged to rid the city of homeless encampments. Per city law, you’re permitted to rest and sleep in public areas, but if you set up a tent or a mattress or something that remains if you leave the area, it can be removed. Therefore, if you are homeless and are camping out on the street, the city has the right to remove your belongings when you leave them unattended. (See a precious story from our partners on crackdowns in Elmhurst.)
The homeless oppose the alternative to the street, which would be staying in a shelter. Some find that surprising but homeless people say shelters are horrible living conditions and impose strict rules on their comings and goings. That’s partly why the mayor has favored what is known as a Safe Haven. A Safe Haven is considered a “low threshold” shelter, which means it has less rules and more privacy (no curfew) and oftentimes offers mental health and substance abuse services.
A report done by the Coalition for the Homeless explained that shelters are widely unfavorable to the homeless population because of their conditions. The report states that many shelters “are in dire need of capital improvements, with frequent elevator outages, faulty plumbing, and heating or cooling problems. Others have persistent vermin infestations, with residents reporting the presence of roaches, bedbugs, lice, and rodents in their living areas.”
Shelters also have many rules and restrictions. Some have strict curfews which may limit a person’s ability to get a job. For example, if your shelter’s curfew is 10 p.m., but if you work late, you can lose your bed at the shelter. If you miss a night at a shelter, you also lose your bed. Many shelters are also congregate-style, which means homeless people must share their living space with multiple people. Their things are at-risk of being stolen, and immunocompromised people are at risk of getting sick.
Ask homeless people what they want and their answer is that the homeless want what everyone wants: privacy and freedom. When put in hotels during the pandemic, many say they were satisfied. In a survey done by Project Renewal, 56% of homeless people reported that moving to the hotel rather than staying at a shelter improved their physical and mental health, and an overwhelming 73% said they were better able to protect themselves from Covid-19.
Adams was quoted during a press conference saying, “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.” However, statistics show the homeless would rather be on the street than in shelters. Out of the 239 encampments cleared at the end of March, only five people moved to shelters.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Vee exclaims. “Of course, no one chooses this. This is the least terrible of many bad options. I do not want to live in a tent, in a Safe Haven or in a shelter any more than you do. I want an apartment just like you do.”
Vee wasn’t always homeless. Before getting evicted in March of 2020, she sold paintings while her husband worked as an electric bike mechanic, together bringing in around $5,000 a month. They raised their 16-year-old-son. Rent for their apartment got too high and they couldn’t make payments, Vee and her family were evicted only 10 days before the eviction moratorium went into effect. When she became homeless, New York City was at the peak of the pandemic, the family used their savings and stimulus checks to live in hotels but it only helped them for so long.
“Over time, [the hotels] gradually got more expensive and the quality of the hotels got worse and I couldn’t do this to my son, have him staying in chicken-wire hotels and have him move all the time and live on the street, because he’s just a teenager,” Vee says.
During this time, Vee’s husband developed a drinking problem, so she sent her son to live with a family friend. She and her husband separated and she’s been in and out of shelters and on Anarchy Row ever since.
Vee and the rest of the homeless population living on Anarchy Row had been expecting a sweep to happen. It was five of them protecting their belongings from nearly 20 police officers. Some community members stopped by to assist, recording officers when they got too close to the encampments and helping gather valuables for safekeeping.
“They made us an offer. It was a little strange because that wasn’t the same unit that came before,” Vee says. “These officers [seem to be] a renamed, revamped version of the homeless outreach team. I don’t think they arrest you generally unless you assault someone, [these officers] make offers, they try to get you to accept services. And in this case, we told them we wanted an apartment that we were not interested in talking about any other alternatives.”
Organizations such as the Brooklyn Eviction Defense, a coalition of tenants in solidarity with people facing eviction, have been fighting alongside the homeless. Ben Wasserman, an organizer at the coalition, believes the homeless should be sent to apartments — not shelters or Safe Havens.
“It costs the city more money to sweep encampments than it does to house the people who have been swept up in this violence,” he says.
Vee says she does not welcome the idea of going back to a shelter. She recounted a terrible experience at one shelter that was infected with rats. The administration put glue traps throughout her room.
“It used to be really traumatic for me when an animal got stuck. I won’t eat anything that has a face. So this poor dying animal making these desperate measures to amputate its leg with his teeth in my living room, it was not really something I could live with,” she says.
As she tried to throw the glue trap out, she cut her hand, resulting in a staph infection. The staph infection caused her hand to swell and she ultimately needed surgery. It took eight months for her to recover, and the situation prevented her from continuing to work at the job she had gotten during her time at the shelter, as a cart pusher for a messenger service.
Things were looking up when she qualified for Section 8 housing, but she needed her hand to push carts at her job, and because she wasn’t working at the time she was no longer eligible for the subsidized housing.
“Section 8 told me that I could not qualify for section 8 because it was for working people, and I did not have a job,” she says. “I told them that my job would accept me back after my hand healed. They already told me they would welcome me back. That wasn’t good enough for them.”
Another woman who asked to be referred to by her nickname “Mei Mei,” is currently at a domestic violence shelter, but goes to Anarchy Row during the day to support her friends as the sweeps have been taking place.
Mei Mei initially came to the shelter to escape her abusive ex-boyfriend. It was supposed to be temporary while she looked for apartments. But her ex-boyfriend found out she was trying to leave him, so he attempted to murder her.
“This time it wasn’t just a few bruises. He shattered my nose underneath my eye and there was blood everywhere,” Mei Mei says. “He admitted to the police that he was trying to kill me.
For her, shelters are a lose-lose situation. She explained that on her first night she was attacked for using the restroom.
“On my first night there, I got screamed at for using the bathroom and the girl got into my face for using the wrong bathroom, even though my room number was on that bathroom. She didn’t want to share a bathroom with anybody else,” she says.
“I made a mistake of going into a shelter and I’m regretting that mistake because, it was either to be safe away from my ex in a shelter, but still have to deal with the safety issues there,” she says. “It’s supposed to be a safe place, but I feel on edge every night that I’m there.”
Mei Mei is currently looking for a job, but explained that it is hard to do so with the shelter’s many restrictions.
Shams DaBaron, a local homeless advocate also known as “Da Homeless Hero” remembers what it was like to be homeless and living in a shelter. When he was homeless he lived in family shelters and single-person shelters, and in both witnessed horrible things.
“The streets, in a nutshell, were much safer and gave me much more sanctuary in terms of having security, than the congregate shelters that we were placed in. Those places were dangerous. I call them death traps,” he says. “So in those places, there were rapes, robberies, beatings, stabbings, security, beaten up people, abusive behavior from interactions from staff members, those places were so, so horrible.”
However, he is a strong advocate for the mayor’s Safe Havens. They are a type of shelter that have lower standards for admittance and fewer rules pertaining to curfews. They are in big demand but in short supply. There are only 27 Safe Haven facilities across the five boroughs. The most recent Safe Haven built—the Morris Avenue Safe Haven—will have 80 beds available of the 500 beds the Mayor promised to add. These beds will only be given to street homeless single adults and/or adult couples with no minor children.
“[Homeless people] want the option of a better environment. They’re not going to go into a congregate shelter. They’re clear on that. I’m clear on that and I would never support that or ask them to do that. But when we talk about the option of going into a hotel that’s a low barrier, less restriction and that [doesn’t have] curfew issues, etc. they’re like, Shams hook me up,” DaBaron says. “[Homeless people] won’t go into a shelter. They’re going into safe havens and low barrier facilities where they have their own space and they’re still there for their access and housing, meaning they’re going through the process with their vouchers.”
Council members are also pushing for the homeless to go into a Safe Haven.
Council member Lincoln Restler of District 33, which encompasses Boerum Hill, Brooklyn Heights, Brooklyn Navy Yard, Downtown Brooklyn, Dumbo, Fulton Ferry, Greenpoint, Vinegar Hill and Williamsburg, is hopeful that the homeless will go into the Safe Havens in his community.
“There’s going to be a new Safe Haven shelter that’s opening in Greenpoint, which will be one of the larger safe havens in the city of New York. And I’m very hopeful that that site is going to be a great aid in providing homeless New Yorkers with a safe place to go and get back on their feet,” he says.
He, along with other council members, are working on a budget negotiation, to include around $113 million for Safe Haven stabilization beds and drop-in centers for homeless people and $4 billion in affordable housing. The funds will also provide money for emergency and long-term housing solutions as well as quality mental health services for the homeless.
However, some homeless people like Vee and Mei Mei, don’t want to put their trust in a system that has already hurt them so much — they continue to fight for apartments, not shelters. Vee encourages New Yorkers to help the unhoused like her because homelessness can happen to anyone.
“If you live paycheck to paycheck, if you are not in the corporate suites, then you’re really just one illness, injury, bad luck thing away [from being homeless]” Vee says. “It happens. It can happen to anyone. If you’re not very, very rich and do not control your own housing, if you do not own your home—we’re all in this same sinking boat.”
Mei Mei hopes the sweeps stop soon because they are dehumanizing.
“We are people too, we are humans just like everybody else. They don’t know any of our stories. They don’t know how we became homeless. They don’t know anything about us,” she says. “We’re not just bums that are on drugs and don’t work and animals and that kind of stuff. We’re human. They don’t know anything about us to be judging us.”