New York Is Pushing Homeless People Off the Streets. Where Will They Go?
On a sweltering July afternoon, a homeless man named Melvin Douglas cycled to his sleeping spot under the High Line, the elevated, art-filled New York City park overlooking the Hudson River, and discovered that a city cleaning crew had thrown away his belongings – again. The same had happened the day before.
“Brand new clothes, brand new T-shirts, everything,” said Mr Douglas, 54, shaking his head at the bare sidewalk. “They took all my things, my brother. No consideration at all.
As the country’s most populous city struggles to attract tourists and office workers, it has launched an aggressive campaign to drive homeless people from the streets of Manhattan.
City workers demolished one or two camps a day. Now they sometimes clean dozens of them. Since the end of May, teams including sanitation workers in garbage trucks, police officers and outreach workers have crisscrossed Manhattan around the clock, hitting the same places over and over again.
The sweeps are part of a larger effort by Mayor Bill de Blasio that includes moving more than 8,000 people from hotels, where they had been placed to stem the spread of the coronavirus, to barracks-style group shelters. Transfers continue despite the recent rise in the Delta variant of the virus, although the city told a judge it would delay action on Monday to address concerns it was not taking sufficient account of health issues and disabilities. people.
The city is also responding to months of complaints about homeless people blocking and littering public spaces, threatening passers-by and committing random assaults. Governor Andrew M. Cuomo, whose administration cut aid to tackle homelessness, on Wednesday cited the problem as one of the main obstacles to the city’s recovery. “We need to bring homelessness under control,” he said.
The debate over how to tackle homelessness in New York City, where more than 2,000 people live on the streets and subways, comes as cities across the country grapple with growing camps. Los Angeles City Council on Wednesday banned camping near parks, libraries and schools. On Saturday, a national moratorium on evictions expired, raising fears of another upsurge in homelessness, although in New York the moratorium continues until August 31.
The city’s homeless services department says it only uses cleanings for “service-resistant” people and is committed to helping people find housing.
“The name of the game is compassionate and consistent outreach,” said Bill Neidhardt, spokesperson for the mayor, in a statement. “The end goal is always permanent housing. “
But the city’s capacity to provide such housing is limited and the process is slow. And homeless advocates and some city workers say the sweeps accomplish little more than chasing people from one place to another, disrupting already precarious lives and – blurring awareness and enforcement. – discouraging people from accepting help.
“They are trying to make life on the streets so miserable that people will enter shelters, but it is a cruel and ineffective approach,” said Josh Dean, founder of Human.nyc, a political group focused on homelessness. in the street. “People need to trust outreach workers, and this approach destroys trust. “
The cleanings also defy the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Covid-19 recommendations against the displacement of people who live outside unless they are moved to “individual housing.” Covid-19 has killed more than 120 homeless people in the city and infected more than 4,100, officials say.
According to a statement from the Homeless Services Department, cleaning crews are not throwing out people’s belongings.
Instead, they “carefully assess” a site while noting “the number and type of assets”, remove items to protect “valuable assets” and the “customer’s quality of life”, and provide “customer feedback”. details on how they can get the property. “
Max Goren, who lives in Tompkins Square Park in the East Village, found the reality a little different.
“At least once a week a medical truck arrives,” Goren, 34, said in July. “If you’re not there to say ‘Hey, this is mine’, it’s all in the back.”
He said his belongings were ransacked three times – each time because he left them to go to a methadone clinic.
“Do I want to risk losing all my clothes and bedding, or am I missing my clinic appointment?” ” he said.
“I think it’s an effort to get us to leave,” he said. ” But where are we going ? If I had a place to go, I wouldn’t be here.
In Times Square, the city’s tourist hub, a business group is testing a very different approach.
There, teams of people, some of whom were previously homeless or incarcerated, distribute t-shirts, socks, granola bars and water, in hopes of building trust and, gradually, connecting. homeless people to social services. They only provide services if people ask for them.
The idea for the program, which recently won a city grant of $ 350,000, came from Tom Harris, a retired police officer and president of the Times Square Alliance, a nonprofit that promotes businesses in the area. Over the past year, Mr. Harris has watched with dismay homelessness on the streets and open drug use on the rise in the region. At some outdoor dining tables, people were taking food from customers’ plates.
“The status quo was untenable,” he said.
But Mr. Harris was determined not to trust the police. His perspective was informed by decades as an officer in Brooklyn, where he discovered that the most effective way to stop someone from committing thefts, for example, was to tackle issues under -contents like drug addiction.
Working with the Midtown Community Court, which offers alternatives to jail for those accused of minor crimes, Mr. Harris helped create Community First, a program that can refer people to nonprofit organizations. that provide housing or rehabilitation for people with mental illness.
After encountering 136 homeless people, Community First teams discovered an impressive number of systemic problems. Some people had been released from prison without identity documents or stable accommodation. Many have struggled with drug addiction.
“We are not going to demolish your house that you built from cardboard,” said Lauren Curatolo, project manager for the community court. “We want to accompany you so that you eventually want to have a bed in a space. “
For a man sleeping outside a Broadway theater, it took a dozen team member visits – after showing up on several occasions with applesauce, his favorite snack – before stepping into homeless shelter and vocational training.
Homeless people and their advocates say what they mostly want is something missing: a place to live with minimal privacy. The best outreach workers can usually offer is a bunk in a group shelter where 10-20 people often share a room.
Since the start of 2020, the urban shelter system has added more than 1,300 beds in single and double occupancy rooms that have drawn people off the streets. But thousands more units are needed, the Homeless Coalition said.
One afternoon in June, a team from Community First met Richard Birthwright, who said he had lost his job at a North Carolina meat factory, returned to New York and started sleeping on the streets. .
When a housing expert told Mr Birthwright, 54, that there was little long-term housing for people who had been on the streets for less than a year and suggested a group shelter, he tensed. He said shelter workers were disrespectful and preferred to stay on the streets.
Community First helped him create a resume and get an interview to work as a street cleaner in Times Square.
“Everything is going well,” he said. “I needed this.”
Some business leaders are skeptical. “I don’t think persuasion is going to take people off the streets,” said Barbara Blair, president of the Garment District Alliance, which represents businesses and real estate owners south of Times Square.
Ms Blair, who has advocated for the removal of homeless people from Midtown hotels, said the city had “failed utterly in terms of providing supportive housing for the very, very sick.” Common ground should be possible, she said.
“The city needs to balance keeping the streets livable for the rest of the population and at the same time getting these people off the streets to a safe place,” she said.
David Stayback, a construction worker in Times Square who had been homeless in the area for two years, said the neighborhood had become a difficult environment for him and his colleagues. “I had knives pulled at me,” he said.
“I was a homeless ex-convict on the street selling drugs,” he said. “When I talk to you like that, I don’t judge them.”
Just over a year ago, after the Black Lives Matter protests, the city decided to reduce agent interactions with the homeless, by disbanding the Police Department’s Homeless Outreach Unit. He did an about-face in response to the public outcry.
So the scans continue. At 14th Street and First Avenue in the East Village, a choreographed routine has developed.
One recent morning, street vendors set up tables a distance from a sign announcing the day’s clean-up.
The city team has arrived. A sanitation supervisor took a photo of the sign which showed there was no clutter around it. “I just have to show my boss that I came and did my job,” he said.
As officers stood guard, an outreach worker attempted to convince a woman named Yolanda Evans to go to a group shelter. Ms Evans said her many health issues made the risk unacceptable during an outbreak.
“How am I going to stay in a room with eight to ten people?” she asked.
Homeless book seller Michael Jones said town crews served a purpose.
“You had people building slums near scaffolding and terrorizing people,” he said. “At the end of the day, people were spoiling a good commotion. “
Under the High Line, Melvin Douglas is tired of playing cat and mouse. A week after his personal belongings were thrown away two days in a row, he neatly stowed them behind a post, briefly left, and returned to find them once again gone.
“I don’t even have clean underwear right now,” he said as he sadly sat under a sign announcing the crew would be back the next day.
Mr Douglas said he could set up a camp elsewhere in town.
He said he was where he was, thinking he wasn’t bothering anyone, for almost three years.
“This is my place,” he said.
Nate schweber contributed reports.
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