Coalition for the Homeless Calls for an End to Warrant Sweeps in Shelters

Today, Coalition for the Homeless joined The Legal Aid Society, other legal services providers and advocates, and homeless New Yorkers for a news conference at which we called on the City to immediately end the punitive and counter-productive practice of conducting warrant sweeps in shelters. The sweeps typically involve law enforcement officers waking clients at the crack of dawn, rounding them up, handcuffing them, and taking them to the precinct to wait for hours before they can see a judge. Many of the open warrants are for low-level, nonviolent offenses such as open containers or jumping turnstiles, and sometimes they date back a decade or more. The experience of being roughly awoken by shouting officers for minor warrants is disorienting and disruptive, and it can result in clients being late for work, missing important appointments, or even losing their shelter bed.

In some cases, sweeps leave clients feeling that it is safer to sleep on the street than in a shelter that is not serving as a refuge. Although the City asserts that the sweeps are against official policy, firsthand accounts indicate that the supposed policy is neither adequately followed nor affirmatively enforced. The Coalition’s own shelter monitors and clients have witnessed at least seven such sweeps this spring and summer – a testament to the importance of our Client Advisory Group and tireless shelter monitoring. As recently as July, clients reported that several officers with vests marked “warrant squad” raided a shelter that is specifically designed to serve men with psychiatric disabilities. Warrant sweeps are particularly traumatic for this vulnerable population, and can push them farther away from the services they need to achieve and maintain stability.

Shelly Nortz, the Coalition’s Deputy Executive Director for Policy, summarized the problems with such sweeps: “Warrant sweeps in facilities sheltering homeless people send exactly the wrong message: If you come to get help, you might become a target. If we want homeless New Yorkers to come in off the streets, our shelters must be seen as safe, welcoming places where real resources are available and not as a fast-track to jail. These sweeps are particularly wrongheaded when we examine the kinds of past offenses homeless New Yorkers are being arrested for: Old warrants for loitering, being in a park at night, jumping a turnstile – exactly the kinds of petty offenses for which the City says it wants to avoid making arrests. The bottom line is that warrant sweeps are not keeping New Yorkers safe from dangerous criminals, but they are making it harder for those who are homeless to get back on their feet again.”

As NY1’s Courtney Gross reported, picking up shelter clients for low-level warrants might deter homeless New Yorkers from entering shelters and therefore impede the City’s efforts to encourage people to come in off the streets. Tina Luongo and Adriene Holder of The Legal Aid Society articulated the unique risks for immigrant New Yorkers in an op-ed for City and State, and called for warrant-clearing opportunities instead of sweeps:

Word of shelter sweeps will discourage homeless people from seeking out programs and services, thus endangering their lives and consigning them to hidden and public spaces where services are not available.

It also has a profound impact on homeless immigrant families, where, for many, any sight of law enforcement activity raises the fear of possible detention and deportation. News of NYPD lurking at city shelters will undoubtedly keep more non-citizens on bus stop benches, at subways stations and in city parks.

To help those at shelters burdened by an outstanding warrants, the Department of Homeless Services should collaborate with defender organizations, district attorneys and judges to bring warrant clearing opportunities to shelters, similar to the “Clean Slate” programs currently administered for the general public in most boroughs.

Today’s news conference included representatives from The Legal Aid Society, Coalition for the Homeless, Brooklyn Defender Services, Bronx Defenders, VOCAL-NY, Picture the Homeless, and Communities United for Police Reform, as well as New York City Council Members Brad Lander, Mark Levine, Jumaane Williams, Stephen Levin, and Carlos Menchaca, and Manhattan Deputy Borough President Aldrin Bonilla.