Extreme Summer Heat is Endangering Homeless People Amid COVID-19 Pandemic

As a “heat dome” descends on much of the country and local governments scramble to provide safe refuges, concern grows over the impact of a novel disease that has ‘totally demolished the homeless people.’

Weeks ago, Keith Britton was staying in a homeless shelter in Brooklyn, New York. But others in the facility weren’t following social distancing guidance or wearing masks, and after his roommate contracted coronavirus, he decided he’d be safer on the streets.

“The worst thing that could have happened was this virus,” Britton said while sitting on cardboard at the edge of Manhattan’s Union Square on a Tuesday afternoon, a sign balanced between his legs. “It just totally demolished the homeless people.”

Today’s Video: NYPD Getting Kicked Out of Homeless Services

The past several weeks have brought renewed scrutiny to the role of police in communities across the nation, as part of the fight against systemic racism. While the City budget agreement announced last week did not go as far as many had hoped in reforming policing in New York City, it did include a long-overdue shift away from police involvement in addressing homelessness.

Coalition for the Homeless has long denounced the criminalization of homelessness. Unfortunately, Mayor de Blasio has increasingly relied on police to address homelessness, such as by launching the misguided Subway Diversion Program last year, which used the threat of summonses to coerce people into services that were often ill-suited to their needs, and touting a new Orwellian surveillance system called the Joint Command Center. These programs failed to recognize that policing homelessness only pushes people further into the shadows and erodes the trust that trained outreach workers try to build with unsheltered New Yorkers. Furthermore, it ignores the root causes of homelessness and diverts resources away from the housing and services people actually need in order to move off the streets and out of shelters.  

According to the new budget agreement, these counterproductive police-based programs are ending, and police will no longer lead homeless outreach operations or oversee shelter security. We will be closely monitoring the implementation of these reforms to ensure that they signify real change rather than hollow budget maneuvers, but the agreement is a promising first step.

Courtney Gross covered the move away from police involvement in homeless services for NY1:

As a result of the budget agreement this week, homeless outreach will be shifted away from the police department and be done entirely by the city’s social services agency.

This command center, for one, will now be run by the Department of Homeless Services. The NYPD’s homeless outreach unit, made up of 86 officers, is being reassigned.

NY1 has also learned the NYPD will no longer oversee security at the city’s homeless shelters. They had taken over that role in 2017 after a string of violent incidents at shelters.

All of this is a serious reversal for the mayor, who over the years has become increasingly dependent on the police department to respond to the homelessness crisis.

“Homelessness is not a matter that can be solved by policing,” said Jacquelyn Simone of the Coalition for the Homeless. “It can only be solved by housing. And unfortunately over the last several years we have seen an increasing reliance on police.”

For instance, last year the city announced a pilot program where homeless people on the subway who commit minor offenses are targeted by police. Police try to convince them to go to shelter by offering to clear them of the offense.

That program is now over.

NYPD Getting Kicked Out of Homeless Services

It was January and the mayor had something new he wanted to show the media.

“Have you ever seen a command center like this in New York City history? I think it’s going to make a huge difference,” Mayor Bill de Blasio told NY1 at the time. “Its training more and more NYPD officers to do the outreach and getting more the two agencies to work together at all times.”

It was a joint command center in Lower Manhattan where the NYPD and the Department of Homeless Services would coordinate responses to homeless people living on the street. It created a network of cameras to see people on the street in real time.

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