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BQE homeless encampment may be gone, but unhoused residents stick around

man who used to live in now-destroyed homeless encampment
A homeless man named Robert carries the ashes of his daughter around his neck. Robert has continued to set up camp around the Brooklyn BQE despite sweep cleanups organized by the city.
Photo by Dean Moses

They city may have taken away their shelter, but  houseless people are still living in the area around the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway in Brooklyn.

On March 28, NYPD officers, sanitation workers, and homeless outreach undertook a major removal of homeless encampments from under the BQE in Williamsburg and one week later, the repercussions can still be felt.

Walking beneath the BQE a week later, on April 4, revealed a vastly different sight than what could be observed last month. What used to house a stretch of tents now, at first glance, seems mostly devoid of human life. However, some of the rough sleepers who called the area home still linger, as do the remnants of their lives.

As Mayor Eric Adams defended himself amidst criticisms for removing more than 100 encampments in the last few weeks, as part of a new city policy, he stated it is still legal for people to sleep on the streets but not for them to build small shelters or tents. This is exactly what can be found around the stretch of the expressway.

person sleeping near site of former bqe homeless encampment
A sleeping bag by the BQE on April 4. Photo by Dean Moses

People could still be seen dozing in sleeping bags near the BQE, in concrete parking lot and laid out on patches of grass as vehicles speed by. Those who did move away return on a daily basis to hang out in their former home.

Robert is one of those people. Wandering around the BQE cloaked in a blanket, he feels the homeless are the last minority population that are freely marginalized.

“We’re suffering from hard times, and they are trying to kick us out of our homes. It is very difficult,” said Robert, who did not disclose his last name. “They pull some slick stuff. They tape the eviction notices with loose tape and the wind sends them flying away. They do it on purpose.”

These sweeps came at the worst time for Robert. He told Brooklyn Paper’s sister publication amNewYork Metro that his 12-year-old daughter passed away in January and he now keeps the ashes around his neck. Becoming emotional, he said he must persevere.

A person experiencing homelessness wanders the streets of Brooklyn, near the busy BQE. Photo by Dean Moses

Life has not become any easier after being forced to pack up and leave last week. He says he will strive to remain on the move in hopes of staying one step ahead of the sweeps and although he does not blame the NYPD for doing their jobs, he does say he blames local government.

Another aspect of the sweeps is an ongoing effort to clean up drug from the city streets, however, the BQE is currently far from clean.

An undeniable part of homeless life is drug use and alcohol intake. For many it is a coping mechanism to deal with the harsh reality of the world as it is on the streets — since sufficient medical and mental attention comes with a hefty price tag — for others it is what drove them to homelessness.

On March 30, Mayor Adams stood before an army of journalists in City Hall and pointed to a blown-up photograph of a stack of needles, citing it as being intolerable.

Nevertheless, a week later, the signs of drug use could still be found near the BQE.

Needles and other debris can be found piled after the cleanups. Photo by Dean Moses

 

Although campsites, bags of shoes and clothing, mattresses, and other belongings were crushed in the back of a sanitation truck, drug paraphernalia can still be seen littering the sidewalks — left over from the sweeps.

Adams’ new “task force,” sent to disassemble 150 encampments citywide during the last two weeks of March, planned to re-asses and revisit previously targeted encampments after the first wave of sweeps. As officers target encampments in Manhattan, patrols have continued beneath the BQE in Williamsburg, mutual aid group North Brooklyn Essentials said in a social media post, “demanding they move tents and other belongings immediately. The group launched an online fundraiser to assist the houseless people who were displaced during the March 28 sweep. 

A version of this story first appeared on amNewYork.

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