Today’s Read: NYC Advocates Say Mayor Eric Adams’ Street Sweeps Aren’t Working

Mayor Adams’ police-focused strategy to sweep unsheltered New Yorkers out of sight is misguided and further perpetuates the crisis of homelessness during a time when homelessness is at its highest levels since the Great Depression: More than 48,000 individuals sleep in the main municipal shelter system each night, and thousands more bed down on the streets and in the subways. This effort to clear encampments across the city is a massive waste of resources that could instead be used to address the critical needs of unhoused New Yorkers by connecting them to permanent housing and single-occupancy rooms in low-barrier shelters. Further, sweeps make the work of trained outreach workers more challenging by eroding hard-earned trust, as unsheltered people start to view outreach teams as an extension of law enforcement.

A recent NPR piece by Emma Bowman highlighted our concerns with this counterproductive strategy:

“All they’re doing is doubling down on a failed policy,” said Jacquelyn Simone, policy director at the NYC-based Coalition for the Homeless. “Policing and criminalization are not the responses to what is fundamentally a housing and mental health crisis.”

Encampment sweeps across the city displace unhoused individuals, inflict trauma, and push folks further out of reach of dedicated outreach staff. As the Coalition found in a survey of unsheltered New Yorkers, most who bed down on the streets have already engaged with the shelter system and have found it does not meet their needs. Many people are reluctant to enter large, congregate shelters where they must abide by strict rules and a curfew, and put their health at risk by sleeping in shared rooms during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Ignoring this reality, the Adams administration continues its aggressive sweeps campaign, without making much progress in helping homeless people move indoors: From March 18th through May 1st, the City conducted 733 sweeps across the five boroughs, during which they engaged 264 people – only 39 of whom accepted temporary housing.

Simone calls the encampment sweeps a massive waste of resources that could instead be used to address the critical needs of the homeless population.

“It’s much more politically expedient to surge police officers to push people out of sight rather than to actually address the root causes,” she said. “The reality is that the people who are on the streets often have tried the city’s main shelter system, especially in congregate shelters, and did not feel safe there, did not feel that those facilities met their needs. So, trying to force people back into a shelter system that many have made a conscious decision to avoid is not going to be successful.”

Instead of aggressive sweeps, Mayor Adams should focus on connecting people to permanent housing and low-barrier shelter options like Safe Havens and stabilization bed sites with private rooms. As we have explained, these alternative shelter beds allow for greater dignity and autonomy through low-occupancy rooms and fewer rules, including no curfews. However, the current supply of Safe Havens and stabilization beds is inadequate to meet the demand, with most beds occupied nightly. Mayor Adams’ pledge to increase the supply of these beds is a good step, but to meet the immediate need, the City must open thousands of low-barrier shelter beds in single-occupancy rooms. Ultimately, the solution to homelessness is housing. To meaningfully address this crisis, Mayor Adams must invest in permanent affordable and supportive housing. Without this investment, the housing and homelessness crises will only continue to worsen.

“In the absence of a comprehensive plan to create vastly more permanent affordable and supportive housing, one that respects the dignity of all New Yorkers without homes, these piecemeal efforts are destined to do nothing more than kick the can down the road,” [the Coalition’s Executive Director David Giffen] said.