March 31, 2022 By Allie Griffin
The city cleared more than 200 homeless encampments across the five boroughs in the past two weeks, sparking criticism from some Queens officials and homeless advocates.
From March 18 through March 30, multi-agency teams removed 239 encampments throughout the city in an effort to connect people living on the street with social services and shelters, Mayor Eric Adams announced Wednesday.
Adams touted the program as a way to help the city’s homeless individuals living on the street while also cleaning public spaces, like areas underneath the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.
“As the mayor of all New Yorkers, I am not going to abandon my neighbors to face suffering, freezing, violence, or death — especially when the city has the power to help,” he said. “Building trust takes time, but this is the right thing to do because there is no freedom or dignity in living in a cardboard box under an overpass.”
The mayor hopes to move people living in encampments to city shelters — including specialty shelters called “Safe Haven” sites that provide more services and often offer private rooms. However, according to a New York Times report, only five people from the 239 encampments have agreed to enter a shelter indicating most were likely to rebuild their makeshift camps.
Several elected officials, including four who represent parts of Queens, condemned the removal of the encampments.
Council Member Jennifer Gutiérrez, whose district includes Williamsburg and a section of Ridgewood, called on Adams to end the “sweeps of homeless encampments”. She was particularly disturbed when sanitation workers and the NYPD cleared a homeless camp underneath the BQE in Brooklyn earlier this week.
“As the local reps, @LincolnRestler, @EmilyAssembly, @JuliaCarmel__ , @NydiaVelazquez & I were disturbed by the violent displacement of homeless people from under the BQE as temps dropped below freezing,” she said in a joint statement with other lawmakers who represent the area under the BQE where the encampments were cleared. “Their possessions were thrown out but no housing solutions were provided.”
Adams has denied that the city has trashed the belongings of people living in the encampments but said Sanitation teams have tossed soiled items. He also said that cleanups of sites are announced with a written notice 24 hours in advance and staff from the Department of Social Services offer to connect encampment inhabitants with shelter and other housing services.
Gutiérrez said the sweeps cause more harm to vulnerable New Yorkers rather than supporting them.
“Performing sweeps of our communities and trashing our neighbors’ belongings does nothing to address the root causes of homelessness or provide real solutions – but it does cause trauma,” she said. “… we need emergency and permanent housing solutions now. Every New Yorker deserves safe, dignified housing.”
Similarly, Southeast Queens Council Member Nantasha Williams, Chair of the Council Committee on Civil and Human Rights, called the clearing of encampments a violent act that robs homeless people of the only safe space they have.
“Without a comprehensive city plan for providing safe, stable, and permanent housing for homeless New Yorkers, the Mayor’s directive is not offering a clear solution to homelessness, but is rather sweeping away the reality of the housing crisis in New York City,” Williams said in a joint statement with Brooklyn Council Member Sandy Nurse. “Clearing homeless people from public space for a short-lived cosmetic appeal is not addressing the root cause of homelessness.”
Meanwhile, State Sen. Michael Gianaris and Council Member Tiffany Cabán, both from Astoria, said Adams’ direction to clear the encampments was particularly problematic since he has proposed cutting homeless services in the city budget.
The preliminary budget cuts about $530 million from the Department of Homeless Services — from $2.58 billion in FY22 to $2.15 billion in FY23. Much of the cut is due to the loss of COVID-19 federal funding which supported services like free hotel stays for isolating people.
“So shortsighted to sweep up the unhoused like this while simultaneously cutting homeless services …,” Gianaris wrote on Twitter. “Where are they supposed to go and what services will be available when an already-inadequate support system is gutted further?”
So shortsighted to sweep up the unhoused like this while simultaneously cutting homeless services by 20%(!)
Where are they supposed to go and what services will be available when an already-inadequate support system is gutted further?
This is the opposite of getting stuff done https://t.co/AJ6S0iGIEc
— Sen. Mike Gianaris (@SenGianaris) March 29, 2022
Cabán signed a letter that was critical of Adams for clearing the encampments. The letter also included a request for greater city funding for housing.
“People can’t afford housing,” she tweeted alongside the letter. “If we kick them out of subways and tents, where are they supposed to go? City Hall says somewhere with ‘healthy living conditions and wrap-around services.’ But the mayor is defunding homeless services by $500M! Cruelty.”
On Tuesday, the mayor attended the opening of a safe haven shelter in the Bronx with 80 beds available to New Yorkers experiencing homelessness.
Its opening was applauded by the Coalition for the Homeless, however, the group denounced the removal of encampments.
“We repeat that policing and sweeps are harmful, counterproductive strategies that can actually push unsheltered homeless people further away from services, and clearing encampments is in direct violation of CDC guidance,” said Jacquelyn Simone, Policy Director for the Coalition for the Homeless.
“Without offering homeless New Yorkers a better place to go, these are cruel public relations tactics that do not address the real problem, nor will they reduce unsheltered homelessness on our streets and subways.”
Council Members Williams and Nurse, however, said building more shelters will not end the homelessness problem.
“If we want to end homelessness in this city, we need to stop fooling ourselves that clearing encampments or expanding the shelter industry will cut it,” they said. “The only thing that solves homelessness is homes.”