New York mayor Eric Adams has ordered that every homeless encampment in the city should be taken down within two weeks, arguing that the situation is not only dangerous to those living there but to the city itself.
“We’re going to rid the encampments off our street and we’re going to place people in healthy living conditions with wraparound services,” Adams said Friday, though he provided few details on exactly how that extra provision would be provided for them.
“I’m looking to do it within a two-week period,” he added in an interview with the New York Times.
The Times said the number of people living in parks and on the streets was estimated at at around 1,100, though that figure was likely a serious undercount.
The issue of homelessness in New York has arisen amid a crime spike in the city and a series of high-profile violent attacks, though advocates point out that the city – and its homeless population – has been caught in a crisis over inadequate mental health services for many years.
The debate has in recent weeks centered on the subway, the scene of a number of assaults. It flared up in recent weeks weeks as city administrators and employers mount a “Subway Safety Plan” to get workers back to offices after a two-year pandemic hiatus.
Officials for the MTA, the city’s transport system, and homeless outreach workers have said they had found 29 homeless encampments in subway tunnels and another 89 in stations earlier this month.
Adams said that as a former transit cop he understood how dangerous the tunnels are.
“When you have those utilizing tunnel systems without any form of interaction of law enforcement, you could have a person that’s not only there to deal with the dangers of being homeless on the tracks, but you also have the potential person that’s trying to do something harmful,” he said.
But he acknowledged that he could not stop homeless people from sleeping on the streets or force them to stay at a homeless shelter. “But you can’t build a miniature house made out of cardboard on the streets,” he added. “That’s inhumane.”
Homeless advocates say sweeps of the subway system or clearing the streets accomplish little other than moving people from one subway stop to another or some other public space, often after losing their possessions in the process.
Craig Hughes, a social worker at the Urban Justice Center, told the New York Times that such efforts leave “people more precarious than they were beforehand”.
The mayor’s ultimatum was quickly followed by video released on social media by a city councilmember of an 18-year-old woman being roughly arrested by NYPD officers after she jumped a turnstile at a subway stop in Brooklyn.
Her arrest came after the NYPD’s chief of crime control strategies said in a statement that the force planned to engage “in proactive enforcement can be the difference that prevents that next shooting, and prevents the next child from being harmed”.
To some, that carries echoes of “broken windows”, a controversial policing policy introduced by Mayor Giuliani in the 90s that many claim unfairly targeted racial minorities and low-income people for minor infractions.
Adams has said the crackdown on quality-of-life offenses is not a return to that policy. “We won’t go back to abusive policing,” he said Friday.
But progressive city politicians said the incident amounted to exactly that. Local councilmember Chi Ossé compared the woman’s arrest to the subway death of an Asian woman pushed under a train by a schizophrenic homeless man last year.
“Four cops were on the platform when Michelle Go was tragically pushed into the subway tracks, and the police did nothing,” Ossé posted on social media. “A Black women hops a turnstile and is confronted with four cops with cuffs, tasers, and firearms … for $2.75.”