A homeless encampment beneath the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway in Williamsburg was cleared by city agencies on Monday, removing several homeless people and their belongings from their longtime shelter as a new mayoral policy takes effect.
The Department of Sanitation, the New York City Police Department, and a homeless outreach team carried out the mayor’s newest initiative on March 28, instructing people to gather up the belongings they wanted to keep, as the rest — including tents, clothing, and more — would be thrown away.
“This effort is about taking care of our people and our public spaces because no New Yorker deserves to live on the street,” said Mayor Eric Adams in a statement. “We are breaking down siloes and working together across government to keep New Yorkers safe and our streets clean. These are basic expectations we have for our city, and we are going to deliver.”
Adams told The New York Times about his plan to clear homeless encampments in the city within two weeks last Friday. Gothamist later reported that the effort had already begun. The policy came shortly after Adams announced a crackdown against people sleeping on subway trains and in stations.
“Encampments,” according to the city’s 311 portal, are anything from mattresses to tents and tarps.
The mayor’s office has said the policy is targeting about 150 campsites and promised that officers will not be heavy handed during the sweep and pledges that they will wear their body-worn cameras throughout the process. Notice will be posted 24 hours before each sweep, a spokesperson said, and outreach teams will offer to connect anyone who appears to be living on the street with services, including shelter for those who are interested.
Adams is urging those living on the streets to enter the shelter system. But those experiencing homelessness say it is not so easy.
“I am not going back,” Heriberto Medina Jr. told Brooklyn Paper’s sister publication amNewYork Metro. “When I was at a shelter I was attacked and I had my skull cracked. I am not going back.”
‘Sweeps’ are becoming more common
Sweeps have become more and more frequent in the last few years, displacing thousands of people as their shelters were tossed out. As of January 2021, there were roughly 2,376 “unsheltered” homeless people living on New York City’s streets, according to an annual city survey. About 117 of those people were living in Brooklyn, a significant drop from January 2020, when the survey counted about 400 unsheltered people in Brooklyn. But advocacy groups like Coalition for the Homeless say those surveys often undercount the number of unsheltered homeless people in any given year.
Monday’s sweep was the third such “cleanup” to occur beneath the BQE in a number of days, according to community groups. Just a few blocks away, near Withers Avenue, two well-established encampments were cleared away without warning, said Benjamin Adam, an organizer with North Brooklyn Essentials, a mutual aid group focused on making connections with and providing resources for their homeless neighbors.
One of the encampments, which had been home to a group of Polish individuals, was carefully constructed with gates and a handwashing station, Adam said, noting that the handwashing station was more than government officials had provided for homeless people during the pandemic.
The city’s commitment to clearing encampments in two weeks is new, but sweeps aren’t, Adam said. Police, DSNY, and outreach workers regularly clear out encampments, tossing people’s belongings and often displacing them. But the timing of Monday’s sweep was unusual — DSNY’s cleanups are usually scheduled every other Thursday, Adam said, and the department posts flyers to let people know ahead of time.
But last week, after the other encampments were cleared, flyers went up along the concrete posts below the BQE warning of a return visit on Monday. For more than a year, Adam and other members of North Brooklyn Essentials have been working alongside DSNY during cleanups, walking through to speak with their homeless neighbors to discuss what’s theirs and what’s trash. Cops usually hang back during those sweeps, Adam said.
After last week’s destructive sweeps, North Brooklyn Essentials wanted to be ready for anything on Monday, calling for supporters to head out to the site of the targeted encampment near Manhattan Avenue to discourage cops from moving in, or at least to support the people being displaced. A group of supporters gathered beneath the BQE in the below-freezing winds starting at 7am, watching as DSNY and NYPD vehicles drove by, snapping photos. The raid began when the city agencies returned with the garbage truck in the early afternoon.
Adam said the homeless are often blamed for leaving trash and making a mess under the busy overpass, but that most of the garbage that accumulates comes from the drivers and other individuals and businesses, including film studios, illegally dumping their trash.
“Sometimes homeless folks help out with cleanups,” he said. “We have an abundance of documented evidence that they are part of the solution, not part of the problem.”
After the first “phase” of sweeps, the task force will re-canvass the city to identify any new encampments, according to the mayor’s office.
The other options
Outreach teams have been traveling through the subways and encampments as part of Adams’ new policies, often accompanied by police. Their goal, usually, is to get people into a safer place, whether it’s one night at a drop-in shelter or a more permanent home. According to city data, outreach teams spoke with nearly 260 people on Sunday, March 27. Just 13 elected to head to a shelter.
Some, like Medina, have had dangerous or violent experiences in shelters in the past. Others say shelters, with curfews, set meal times, and more, are too restrictive. Michael, another person who had been living in the same encampment, has not been allowed to stay with his partner at city shelters, and the pair don’t want to be apart.
The city is planning to open a “safe haven” shelter in nearby Greenpoint sometime next year. With fewer restrictions and lower thresholds for admission, safe havens are geared toward people who have resisted moving to a shelter for any number of reasons, with the goal of creating relationships with homeless people whether they decide to stay in the shelter long-term or not.
People like Adam, or like outreach workers with city-contracted groups like Breaking Ground, who are also contracted to build the safe haven shelter, often have established relationships with the residents of encampments, Adam said. He’s handed out phones to some of them, so they can stay in touch, but for others his weekly in-person visits are their primary touchpoint. When sweeps occur and forcibly displace people, or when those warning signs go up, homeless people often move temporarily away from that site in an unhelpful game of cat-and-mouse.
“They might disappear and we might not see them again, or they might slowly collect again,” he said. “It depends on the ongoing persistence of the threats.”
On Monday morning, as Adam waited for the sweep to start, a Breaking Ground vehicle pulled up – it was Michael’s caseworker, looking to check in with him. The visit was quick, just a few minutes, before the caseworker got back in the vehicle and drove off. While he hesitated to criticize individual employees, who he said he knows are doing their best, Adam said some homeless individuals are frustrated with outreach, and feel Breaking Ground “makes a lot of promises” about finding and providing housing and other services, but doesn’t follow through.
In addition to taking part in outreach on the streets, Breaking Ground operates three short-term “safe havens'” and a number of permanent supportive housing developments, but demand is high and the number of available spaces is limited. If there’s not a bed available in a safe haven, the person seeking shelter would be directed to the city’s shelter system, a Breaking Ground representative said, which people are often hesitant to do, especially because there’s no guarantee of where in the five boroughs they’ll end up — it could be any appropriate city shelter with a space available. The organization advocates for turning vacant hotels in “high-need” areas, like Midtown Manhattan, into affordable housing.
“The folks who are down here are down here because they have nowhere else to go,” Adam said. “What sweeps like this do is extraordinarily exacerbate the already dangerous and volatile, precarious conditions they’re trying to survive.”
Update 3/29/22: This story has been updated with comment from Breaking Ground.