Homeless New Yorkers and Advocates Rally at City Hall to Oppose Criminalization of Homelessness

Mayor de Blasio’s “Subway Diversion Program” Condemned as Harmful; Groups Argue Homeless NYers Need More Permanent Housing and Low-Threshold Safe Havens, Not Increased Policing

Breaking Anonymous Letter From NYPD Transit Bureau Officers Expressing Grave Concerns with Program Released

NEW YORK, NY — Today, ahead of a City Council hearing on the NYPD’s “Subway Diversion Program,” homeless New Yorkers, along with other advocates and supporters, rallied outside City Hall to condemn the program and the increased policing and surveillance of homeless New Yorkers. An anonymous letter from NYPD Transit Bureau Officers expressing deep concerns over the discriminatory and ineffective nature of the program was also released at the event, and can be read in full at diversioniscoercion.nyc.

“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,” said Giselle Routhier, Policy Director at Coalition for the Homeless.

Homeless New Yorkers shared their firsthand experiences with the program, which — contrary to the administration’s claims — increases police interactions with people sleeping on the subways without offering them the housing they want and need. Advocates argued that by emphasizing policing of homeless New Yorkers instead of devoting more resources to the housing and services people actually need, Mayor de Blasio has once again missed an opportunity to truly and humanely address homelessness and is driving our most vulnerable neighbors deeper into the shadows.

The Subway Diversion Program coerces homeless New Yorkers into receiving “services,” which are no more than a referral to already-existing shelters. The program is ill-suited to meet people’s needs for housing, and instead offers the threat of summonses.

Advocates have consistently raised concerns with the Subway Diversion Program since it was first announced last summer. Their fears were confirmed on November 12, 2019, when the Coaliton for the Homeless and Human.nyc 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. At the rally today, Human.nyc and Coalition for the Homeless announced the launch of a new website, diversioniscoercion.nyc, to disseminate the NYPD officers’ letter along with other documentation they have compiled of the program in action. As the 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.”

The Subway Diversion Program is one of several troubling and misguided recent initiatives that signal the de Blasio administration’s increasing criminalization of homelessness. Last week, the City showcased an Orwellian new “Joint Command Center,” which advocates say will merely aid the City in surveilling and harassing the homeless — not help them.

“Having witnessed the Subway Diversion Program firsthand, we’ve seen the harm it does to homeless New Yorkers. The tactics NYPD is deploying to coerce people into ‘services,’ including but not limited to giving summonses and handcuffing people, are only driving homeless New Yorkers farther from the help they want, need, and are actively working to seek. Moreover, we see people being unjustly targeted through this program who are doing nothing wrong. At worst, they are taking up more than one seat, the same way most housed New Yorkers do every day. The Mayor should be ashamed of himself for starting and expanding this program. It needs to end immediately,” said Josh Dean, Executive Director of Human.nyc.

“Harassing New Yorkers seeking shelter in the subway system will never be the solution to the homeless crisis we face,” said Manhattan Borough President Gale A. Brewer. “Our city’s greatest resource is in the relationships and communities we form in our neighborhoods. Leveraging those, we can help more people and make more progress against homelessness and poverty than ever before.”

“Homeless New Yorkers and advocates have been very clear about what resources the administration should be offering to stem the rise of homelessness: more permanent housing and safe haven shelters, and outreach driven by qualified social service professionals,” said Council Member Rafael Salamanca Jr. “The continued reliance on NYPD as a first response is counteractive to building a relationship of trust and further stigmatizes homelessness as an issue of criminal behavior.”

“Issuing summons as a way to induce homeless New Yorkers to accept services is an absurd and inhumane response. Studies show that the large majority of New Yorkers sleeping in the street and in our subway system are people living with mental illness or other severe health problems. This vulnerable population, an estimated 3 to 4,000 New Yorkers, needs supportive housing with a wide range of mental health and other services. The sooner we create that housing, the sooner we can begin to address this human crisis,” said Council Member Helen Rosenthal.

“Ending the criminalization of homeless New Yorkers who rely on the subway as a safe, warm place to be is a worthy goal, but the Subway Diversion Program relies on the wrong tools,” said Council Member Brad Lander. “Homeless New Yorkers need more access to safe and welcoming housing options and services, not more harassment and threats from police.”

“The measure of a society is how it treats its most vulnerable members, therefore we must treat homeless New Yorkers with compassion,” said Council Member Antonio Reynoso. “I oppose Mayor de Blasio’s Subway Diversion Program as a blatant criminalization of poverty. Homeless New Yorkers should not have to choose between accepting services or paying a fine. The false dichotomy presented in the Plan forces our most vulnerable to choose between accepting services or further worsening their already dire financial situations. Thank you to the groups and elected officials rallying against this plan. I look forward to continuing to fight for more permanent housing and safe haven shelters.”

“The Mayor’s new initiative is misguided and an absurdly backwards way of addressing the homelessness crisis in New York City. Our City’s homeless should have unfettered access to housing, shelters, and resources, but not through a law enforcement pipeline that has historically criminalized people experiencing homelessness. We must acknowledge the plights facing this population and implement thoughtful policies and remedies, instead of issuing summonses in the first place,” said Josh Goldfein, Staff Attorney at The Legal Aid Society.

“At Homeless Services United, a coalition of mission-driven nonprofit homeless service providers, we know that the best way to earn the trust of the homeless New Yorkers is to treat them with the dignity and respect they deserve. This means offering them access to safe havens and housing without judgment or any strings attached. The Mayor recently committed to increasing such resources to ensure outreach teams have the tools they need to get folks to come indoors; for that we are grateful. Despite this investment, the success of the outreach teams is being hindered by the Subway Diversion Program. This NYPD-led initiative is actively undermining our efforts to get people to accept shelter and housing services by having officers threaten our clients with a summons or arrest prior to our teams to engaging them. This is creating a culture of fear and distrust and, in some cases, causing significant trauma. Such tactics will only further dissuade people from seeking services and must be stopped immediately; homelessness is not a crime and the NYPD should have no role in addressing it,” said Catherine Trapani, Executive Director of Homeless Services United.

“The Subway Diversion Program needlessly criminalizes our homeless neighbors, and is a waste of City resources. Rather than deploying police to harass people who are homeless in the subway, causing them further stress or coercing them into unwanted services, Mayor de Blasio should instead allocate the City’s resources to invest in building permanent affordable housing for homeless New Yorkers. The City must focus its efforts on expanding safe havens and building new low-income housing, rather than further criminalizing homelessness in the name of progress,” said Amy Blumsack, Director of Organizing & Policy at Neighbors Together.

“More than half of the participants that come through the doors of our syringe exchange program are living on the street. All have faced trauma that no one should face. All have had traumatic experiences with the police. All have reasons to avoid the shelter system. The Subway Diversion Program will lead to more trauma, more summonses, and won’t help people get the thing they really need: permanent housing. We’ll keep fighting for housing and to reduce harms on our communities,” said Joseph Loonam, Housing Campaign Coordinator of VOCAL-NY.

“Criminalizing homelessness won’t fix the subway. Transit needs and the homelessness crisis are separate issues that must be handled on their own terms. Homeless New Yorkers shouldn’t be scapegoated or demonized for the ills of our transit system that result from a generation-long failure of political accountability. Aboveground and on the subway alike, homeless New Yorkers need homes and care, not arrests and jail,” said Danny Pearlstein, Policy and Communications Director at Riders Alliance.

“I’ve been in both the New York City prison system and the New York City shelter system, and I have been more afraid and at greater risk in the shelter system. In shelters, you are isolated in a dorm, with no security inside. Abuses, fights, and drugs are all common. Some homeless people like me feel safer in the subway than in shelters, because we are visible and can get help from other citizens if we are in harm’s way. The City Council just passed a bill to increase the number of set-asides for homeless New Yorkers in newly built low-income housing to 15%, but right now many of us work hard all day and still can’t afford an apartment. The subway diversion program might make pedestrians feel safer because they can’t see us, but it actually puts real homeless New Yorkers at greater risk of harm from being in an unsafe shelter, exposed to the elements on the city streets, or turning to sex work and other underground economies just to have a bed for the night. We don’t need the subway diversion program. We need safe places to live,” said Rona Sugar Love, who is working with the Housing Works Advocacy Department.

“Mayor de Blasio has continued the cruel tradition of mayors who have met those living on the street with coercion and banishment. Data recently released through a Freedom of Information request showed that there was a 44.5% increase in displacements of those on the street (better known as ‘street sweeps’) between 2017 and 2019. Following in the footsteps of the reactionary Giuliani administration, these policies directly increase the criminalization of homelessness and are in no way a compassionate response to the city’s housing crisis and the homelessness it produces. We call on the city to make an immediate about-face. The ‘subway diversion’ program should be terminated without delay, the police must be removed from any involvement in resolving the city’s housing and homelessness crisis, and every person living on the street should be offered no-barrier access to housing immediately,” said Kiana Davis, Policy Analyst at Urban Justice Center – Safety Net Project.