Coalition Testifies on NYPD Subway Diversion Program

In addition to the record number of people in the New York City shelter system every night, thousands of homeless New Yorkers sleep on the streets and in the subway system. New York City has a legal right to shelter, but some people end up on the streets after having accessed the shelter system and finding that it did not meet their needs or was unsafe for them. People living on the streets also report that the bureaucratic shelter intake process is too intrusive or complex for them to manage, among many other reasons they cite for avoiding the main municipal shelter system. Unfortunately, rather than expanding access to the low-threshold safe haven shelters and permanent housing that people on the streets want and need, Mayor de Blasio has increasingly relied on police to address street homelessness.

In June, Mayor de Blasio announced the launch of the “NYPD Subway Diversion Program,” which was framed as a way to offer services to homeless people in the transit system in lieu of contact with the criminal justice system, by allowing them to vacate transit summonses as long as they agree to meet with outreach workers. However, Coalition for the Homeless and other advocates immediately expressed concerns that the program would further criminalize homelessness through useless summonses and by coercing people into accepting services that are ill-suited to meet their needs. Our fears were soon confirmed by the firsthand accounts of people who were targeted for summonses, and further reinforced when we received an email from an anonymous group of NYPD Transit Bureau officers who decried the discriminatory nature of the program. We have documented some of these examples and the NYPD letter on a new website, DiversionIsCoercion.nyc, launched in collaboration with Human.nyc this week.

On Tuesday, January 21, Coalition for the Homeless, Human.nyc, The Legal Aid Society, and other groups held a rally to oppose the criminalization of homelessness and call for an end to the Subway Diversion Program. Giselle Routhier, the Coalition’s Policy Director, explained:

“The NYPD’s misguided new policy will only serve to further criminalize homeless New Yorkers through useless summonses. There is no criminal justice or policing solution to homelessness in New York City. People avoid services and shelters for a variety of legitimate reasons, the most important being the shortage of safe, welcoming shelter beds and permanent and supportive housing. Reducing the tragedy of people taking makeshift refuge in transit facilities and on the trains requires giving them somewhere better to go – not using the police to chase them in circles.”

Following the rally, Coalition for the Homeless and The Legal Aid Society presented testimony to the New York City Council’s Committee on General Welfare and Committee on Public Safety regarding the program:

Mayor de Blasio’s subway diversion program was launched in June 2019, framed as a way to offer services to homeless people in the transit system in lieu of contact with the criminal justice system. Unfortunately, this has not turned out to be the case. Based on the first-hand reports of homeless individuals, it appears that the program has served only to increase unwelcome contact with NYPD officers while adding a counterproductive element of coercion to outreach by using summonses to force those individuals to accept transport to a shelter, regardless of whether or not they intend to stay there.

We have witnessed several examples of police explicitly targeting homeless individuals for infractions that are commonly made by riders who are not homeless – including taking up more than one seat or placing their bags on an adjacent seat – removing those individuals from the subway, and in some cases handcuffing them. This is a direct violation of Local Law 71 of 2013, which prohibits bias-based profiling due to a person’s housing status or other protected characteristic.

The Coalition for the Homeless, The Legal Aid Society, and other advocates have consistently raised concerns with the subway diversion program since it was first announced last summer. Our fears were confirmed on November 12, 2019, when we received an email from an anonymous group of NYPD Transit Bureau officers who wanted to decry “the blatant discrimination against the homeless in the NYC subway” as a result of the program. In partnership with Human.nyc, we have created a website called diversioniscoercion.nyc to disseminate the NYPD officers’ letter along with other documentation we have compiled of the subway diversion program in action. As our documentation shows and the NYPD whistleblowers wrote, “The Diversion Program that is being advertised by the Mayor as helping the homeless can be nothing further from the truth.”

Increased policing is not the answer to homelessness. People who experience these interactions say they find them to be humiliating and unhelpful, at best. Deploying police officers in this manner only serves to increase the mistrust that trained outreach workers work so hard to overcome. And again, the program fails to offer what homeless individuals truly need to get off the streets: permanent affordable housing, with services for those who need them.

The full testimony can be read here.

Photo collage featuring people on the steps of city hall at a rally