Sinthia Vee used to live on “Anarchy Row,” the homeless encampment located outside Tompkins Square Park in Manhattan. But encampments, already a target of the police, were at greater risk for destruction following Mayor Eric Adams’ pledge to rid the city of them. Outreach workers from the Department of Homeless Services and members of the NYPD hit the streets in full force this past April. Vee, a vocal advocate for homeless rights, spoke against the sweeps. Now, a year later, Vee is in a nursing home recovering from a stroke she suffered shortly after her encampment was raided and she went to a Safe Haven.
Vee, who spoke with Epicenter’s community reporter Andrea Pineda-Salgado, says everyone is just one tragedy, one paycheck or one life-altering situation away from homelessness.
Vee sat in her wheelchair near a corner of a room in her nursing home. The gray paint on the walls makes the space around her seem empty and dull, but she brightens it up with her orange hair and pink T-shirt. Placed on top of the hospital bed next to her are some watercolors and a sketchbook. If there is one thing that has gotten Vee through trying times, it’s art.
Art is something she loved as a tween after receiving a set of oil paints from her grandmother. But what really made her believe in herself was winning a school art contest.
“They put my work up in the mall, back then in the 80s the mall was a big deal,” she says. “[The other kids] got mad at me because they wanted this boy who drew a bunny with markers to win, they saw him as being an artist and me as being a weirdo. I didn’t do a bunny, I did something abstract. It was a brown eye and a blue eye connected together with a whole bunch of different colors.”
Now, Vee is lucky to be able to finish a simple sketch. Her left hand — her dominant one — was gravely affected by the stroke.
As a teenager, Vee’s family moved from Tennessee back to Syracuse, New York, where she was born. The new high school wasn’t as artistic as the one in Tennessee, and she often got bored and play hooky from school.
“[My friend and I] would often head over to the record stores and hang out instead of going to high school. The music classes were not nearly as good [as my other school] and they were making me read Charles Dickens for the third time in a row,” she says.
At the same time, life with her mother began to get a bit rocky, so at 15, Vee ran away from home with a friend. She tried to make it down to New York City, but only got as far as Albany. It was the first time she experienced homelessness, but only for a short time before her brother brought her back home.
Years later, she’d find herself homeless once again. The father of her child, whom she had in the early 2000s, used to hit her. In an effort to protect her son, she left the relationship and ended up at a domestic violence shelter, where she had a horrible experience. It was infested with rats and when she tried to throw a glue trap out, she cut her hand and developed a staph infection, which resulted in her needing surgery. Recovery took eight months, and during that time she lost her job as a cart pusher for a messenger service. Not being able to show employment prevented her from qualifying for Section 8 housing.
“When my time came for the interview they told me ‘This is working Section 8 and you are not working.’ I told them I had a job before and I will have it again when my hand isn’t sick anymore,” she says. “I had a hand truck and you can’t really do that with one hand, especially because [the infection] was on my left hand and I am left handed.”
During this period, Vee met a man who she would go on to marry and stay with for the next 15 years. While she never ended up moving into Section 8 housing, she and her son moved into an apartment her new husband shared with his grandmother in Brooklyn. The three-bedroom apartment was spacious, and between the three of them, rent was affordable. They lived there peacefully for more than a decade, but things took a turn for the worse right before the pandemic. Her husband’s mother and grandmother both passed away in short succession, and he fell into a state of depression.
He inherited several things from them, mainly clothing and costume jewelry. Many people might consider these items worthless, but for him they contained sentimental value, and he refused to throw them away. This triggered hoarding behavior in him, and he began bringing in items from the street, which he promised to sell but never did.
“We still had the great big apartment with three bedrooms that we needed for all of us to live together. We couldn’t afford it anymore. It was expensive and they wanted to double the rent,” Vee says. “The landlady got mad because we were falling behind on rent, and when she saw all the things we had in the apartment she evicted us.”
For Vee, that was the beginning of the end. The family of three was evicted just 10 days before the pandemic eviction moratorium went into effect. The family moved from hotel to hotel, using savings from Vee’s job selling art and her husband’s as an electric bike mechanic, plus some additional money from stimulus checks. But money ran out after about a year. By the end of the summer of 2021, Vee sent her son to live with relatives in St. Louis, Missouri, while she and her husband began living on the street. They split up shortly after.
“For a while, I was staying over on 14th Street. There is a place where some heat comes out of a pipe. Some people I know stayed there making a tent out of blankets and sitting over the pipe,” she says.
One day this past spring Vee was at Tompkins Square Park selling her paintings. It started pouring and Vee did not know where to go to protect her paintings. She remembered that a group of people lived on the side of the park in an encampment called Anarchy Row. The group had several tents, which Vee crouched under for shelter. She was intrigued by the anarchy symbols on some of the tents. The group was kind to her and closely worked with Washington Square Park Mutual Aid, which helped her settle in and make the encampment a home.
“When I saw the anarchy signs painting, I thought ‘These have got to be my people.’ I was surprised I didn’t already know them,” she says. “After I crawled under the table some people from Washington Square Park Mutual Aid brought me a tent and I joined permanently.”
At Anarchy Row, Vee was a fierce advocate for housing and pushed back against the Mayor’s sweeps. However, her efforts ended on May 6, 2022, when her encampment was taken away. During that encounter some of her friends were taken away in handcuffs, and Vee accepted placement in a Safe Haven.
“It was a particularly big, scary sweep,” she says. “ Everything went in the garbage and there were a lot of people from homeless services and a lot of police.”
Life was different at the Safe Haven. Security constantly came in for wellness checks, and being in a constant state of vigilance affected her sleep. I
Apart from these issues, Vee liked the Safe Haven; it was drastically different from the shelters she had stayed in before, however the stress from the sweep and the constant check-ups brought Vee to her breaking point right before she had a stroke. She began falling asleep in the shower and missing dinner. One day she felt so sick she slept on the floor to keep from vomiting on her sheets. On one of the wellness checks, a staff member realized she had a stroke.
“I think the stress really contributed, I think that is why I had a stroke,” she says. [At the time] there was a guy that was shooting homeless people and it made me feel very, very haunted, between that person and the police. And then you got your Mayor saying that we are living in piles of human filth and needles — that was not true. You saw it.”
Vee has been recovering at a nursing home in Brooklyn. She’s lost mobility of her legs and her left arm. She’s disappointed because she can’t draw as she used to. Vee tried sketching a cat, but her hand was shaky and it ended up looking like a shaggy dog.
“I want to do buildings again. I really love to draw New York,” she says. “There are a lot of interesting subjects out there.
Through therapy, Vee has slowly been regaining her mobility. She is now able to roll her own wheelchair for a little bit. Vee hopes to see her son soon and was told that Washington Square Park Mutual Aid was raising funds for a plane ticket for him.
“What I want everybody to know is that we were just like everyone else. We were a family with an apartment and jobs, just like everybody else,” she says. “I have an associate degree [from Lincoln Tech]. I’m not just some ‘loser.’
Vee hopes to enroll in online programming classes to continue her studies. After her recovery, Vee plans to live with a friend; she hopes she doesn’t have to go back out into the streets again.
For ways to help Sinthia Vee, reach out to Washington Square Park Mutual Aid. You can donate art supplies, clothes and basic necessities. If you want to donate money, feel free to Venmo to @wspmutualaid or cash app $wspmutualaid1 and leave the note to “SIN” to make sure the group knows it’s for Vee.