Inside NYC’s Street Homeless Sweeps, Rapid Responses and Signs of Futility 

While the policy is handed down by the mayor, an array of New Yorkers—from everyday residents to top city officials to nonprofit service providers—play a role in recommending locations for sweeps, according to hundreds of internal emails reviewed by City Limits.

Adi Talwar

New Yorkers experiencing homelessness who were camping out on a Lower Manhattan sidewalk near Tompkins Square Park, until the city cleared the site during a sweep on Nov. 10, 2021.

The complaint came from the very top late last September: A small homeless encampment on Jerome Avenue, near the 170th Street 4 train station in The Bronx, had to go.

An order from the mayor triggered a rapid response from the Department of Homeless Services (DHS) and Department of Sanitation (DSNY).

“We attempted an emergency cleanup at this site this morning with DSNY as per City Hall’s request,” a DHS official notified a nonprofit outreach team by email. But the couple staying at the site refused to leave, the official said.

The pair told workers from DHS and Sanitation that they wanted to remain together and were awaiting shelter beds provided by the organization BronxWorks, according to the email. Nevertheless, “City Hall requested another cleaning for tomorrow and an update on their placement,” the official added.

Seven minutes later, a BronxWorks outreach coordinator responded to say they did not have a room available for the couple but were trying to make space before another sweep.

“Perfect,” a DHS official responded after less than 20 minutes. “It will be our first stop tomorrow at 9 am.”

The sweep, at the behest of then-Mayor Bill de Blasio, was one of nearly 10,000 clean-up operations conducted by DHS, Sanitation and police from 2016 through the end of 2021, according to records. During the sweeps, workers from the three city agencies arrive at the scene where homeless New Yorkers are staying and recommend they move indoors before, as often is the case, throwing their possessions into a garbage truck. In the September instance, the BronxWorks outreach team managed to find a room for the couple a few hours before the next sweep, though such accommodations are often unavailable.

Three months into office, Mayor Eric Adams has picked up where his predecessor left off, directing municipal agencies to conduct hundreds of sweeps to motivate homeless New Yorkers to move indoors, while discarding their things and relying on police to enforce the orders (Last week, six people were arrested after refusing to give up their tents on the Lower East Side).

At the opening of a new shelter in The Bronx last month, Adams said he himself has called in five complaints about encampments. One person at those sites opted to move into a shelter, City Hall officials told City Limits.

“We are going to do the right thing for New Yorkers, the right thing for New York City, and the right thing for public health, and the right thing for all New Yorkers who have fallen on hard times,” Adams said last month at a press briefing, where he displayed poster-board photos of encampments. “There’s no freedom or dignity in living in conditions that we are witnessing here.”

The enforcement has sparked anger on social media and public condemnation from several lawmakers, often in response to video footage of city workers clearing camps. At a hearing April 5, Councilmember Diana Ayala, chair of the General Welfare Committee, called the practice “inhumane.”

And while the policy is handed down by the mayor, an array of New Yorkers—from everyday residents to top city officials to nonprofit service providers—play a role in recommending locations for sweeps, according to hundreds of internal emails reviewed by City Limits.

The Urban Justice Center’s Safety Net Project shared 412 pages of emails exchanged by DHS and outreach teams last year after receiving the material via a Freedom of Information Law request. The exchanges reveal the city’s rapid response to 311 calls from the public, with DHS staff notifying outreach teams within minutes of a complaint. An outreach coordinator typically responds minutes later and assigns a team to visit the area and engage the people there, often clients they are already working with.

The clean-up referrals come from some of the city’s most powerful figures, including the ex-mayor and the former City Council speaker, the emails show. DHS’ Joint Command Center also moves quickly to gather information after receiving complaints from local community boards, councilmembers, library staff and business groups—as well as recommendations from outreach workers themselves.

When, for example, someone using the 311 app logged a complaint about a tent in Rose Hill Park, near Fordham University, on the morning of July 21, DHS staff contacted the BronxWorks team eight minutes later, emails show. The next morning, a coordinator said outreach staff had talked with the person staying in the tent and thought a sweep would compel them to move into a shelter.

“Client declined services but accepted a business card and indicated that he would call when he wants services,” the coordinator wrote to DHS. “This location is already on Parks Department radar and clean up should be coordinated for this location. I believe the client will accept services whenever the clean-up gets done.”

In September, an outreach coordinator proactively recommended a sweep near the corner of 135th Street and Brook Avenue in The Bronx. “I wanted to put this encampment on your radar for a clean-up in the near future,” the coordinator said in an email to DHS. “The clients at this location both have beds at our stabilization [shelter] but have been staying at this street location.”

A month later, a team leader wrote in response to a 311 complaint: “The client that is at this location does not want services…The area is recommended for a cleanup and NYPD should be on-site when it happens.”

The incidents also demonstrate how the outreach teams themselves face significant political pressures, especially when local elected officials or the mayor were on their case, a person who has worked for DHS told City Limits. “It’s a really tough position to be in,” said the person. In interviews with City Limits, staffers at outreach organizations similarly reported feeling under pressure to act.

The need to build trust

The problem with the sweeps, say New Yorkers experiencing homelessness and their advocates, is that the punitive approach rarely works to move people off the streets. The operations shuffle people to new locations to appease neighborhood residents but end up eroding trust in outreach workers tasked with helping them, likely recreating the same situation elsewhere.

At a press conference March 30, Adams said city workers visited 244 encampments between March 18 and 30 and cleared 239 of them. Only five people at those sites went into a shelter, he said. At the same event, Deputy Mayor Anne Williams-Isom acknowledged the “very difficult work” of outreach teams.

“Work that has to be done to create a connection with people who are living on the streets, and to connect them to the supports that they need,” she said. “Most importantly though, to build trust with those people. Many of them who have lost trust over the years.”

And yet, the very practices pursued by city leaders contradict that goal, advocates say. Safety Net Project, outspoken critics of the sweeps policy, said outreach teams making cleanup recommendations only sabotage their own efforts and undermine the trust they must earn from homeless New Yorkers as they encourage them to move to shelter.

“We repeatedly see throughout these records echoes of the reasons our clients say they do not want to engage with outreach, which some have labeled as the ‘outreach police’—involvement in sweeps, bureaucratic barriers to accessing shelter, little real assistance with housing and failures to place people in supportive housing,” said Kathleen Cash, Safety Net Project’s homeless and benefits advocate.

No one, least of all homeless New Yorkers, seem to want to live in a city so unequal that people sleep on dirty mattresses below multi-million-dollar condos. The solution, many experts and advocates say, is more accessible and truly affordable housing.

Karim Walker, an outreach specialist at the organization who has stayed in public spaces, shared that perspective during a rally outside City Hall last month.

“First and foremost, any plan that will work must lead with housing, especially since there are more than enough vacant residences than there are homeless people to ensure that everyone can have a stable roof over their heads,” Walker said. “Street sweeps are intended to break spirits and bend wills.”

READ MORE: The City is Pushing Homeless New Yorkers Off the Streets and Subways. Where Will They Go?

“Homeless people need access to housing, not destruction of their belongings through targeted harassment by the agencies who are contracted, ostensibly, to help them,” Cash echoed.

Adams has acknowledged that housing is the solution to homelessness, with services for people with mental illness and other needs. For now, though, immediate housing isn’t really something outreach workers who canvas the city can offer. Instead, they are tasked with building relationships with unsheltered New Yorkers to help them feel more comfortable moving into a temporary indoor setting. But the need for time runs up against political pressures, neighborhood backlash and reactionary media coverage.

The mayor points out that New York City features a unique right to shelter that guarantees space in a facility for single adults, theoretically providing a pathway to a permanent apartment. But that path can be long, and arduous: during the last fiscal year, single homeless adults spent an average of 476 days in shelter, up from previous years. Just over a third of that population—6,535 of 18,012 single adults—moved from shelter into permanent housing during that time, city data shows.

And most people staying in public spaces say they have already tried traditional congregate shelters before opting to leave due to autonomy, privacy or safety reasons, according to a 2021 report by the Coalition for the Homeless.

John Grima, a man arrested during a crackdown on a Lowest East Side tent encampment Wednesday, said he would not leave the site just to enter a shelter. He said he had tried them and did not feel like they provided the services or security he needed, Gothamist reported.

“I want apartments for all my homeless people,” Grima said as police zip-tied his wrists.

The city has begun to expand capacity in so-called Safe Haven and stabilization beds—facilities without the same restrictions and curfews as the broader shelter network—but there are still too few to provide space for every street homeless New Yorker even if they wanted to move in.

Four outreach workers from three city-contracted organizations who spoke with City Limits for this story say they rarely recommend the punitive sweep approach because it shatters the relationship with street homeless New Yorkers. They asked to remain anonymous because they are not authorized to speak to the media.

All four said they only request a clean up if they are concerned for a person’s safety, including along narrow sidewalks near busy roadways. Two said a cleanup makes sense in an area where people have left garbage but are not actually staying.

Usually, two workers said, sweeps decisions are out of their control. They show up to continue offering services and, ideally, a Safe Haven placement when the garbage trucks arrive.

Scott Auwarter, the assistant executive director at BronxWorks, said the city should provide ample warning ahead of sweeps, though in practice, street homeless New Yorkers often get about 24 hours notice.

“On a case-by-case basis, if there are serious health and safety concerns, BronxWorks will work with DHS to clear encampments,” Auwarter said. “BronxWorks advocates for giving people staying in the encampments as much notice as possible, and offers a bed in a setting that is acceptable to the individual to ensure they have the resources they need as they transition off of the street.”

The realities of mental illness, diminished trust and a lack of viable housing options make homeless outreach a tough job—with relatively little pay. The email exchanges shed light on those challenges, as well as the futility of sweeps.

Often, the emails show, outreach teams seemed to advise against sweeps to preserve a delicate relationship with the client. A Manhattan outreach director, for example, described the ineffectiveness in response to a “clean up request” on Clarkson Street in the West Village last May.

“It is…worth noting that the area and location has received multiple clean ups with DSNY, and will most likely continue to receive cleanings, however, historically this has not been a motivation for the client to accept services or housing,” the director wrote.

The emails also show the limits of what outreach workers can offer.

“Client had been indicating for months he’d take any placement so long as his dogs could come inside,” an outreach worker wrote to DHS June 7. The man was waiting to complete an application for supportive housing but was having trouble accessing a birth certificate by mail, the worker wrote. He turned down a Safe Haven bed a few days earlier when he was scheduled to complete intake paperwork.

“When he declined placement on this day, he remarked that if the city can spend all of this time and money on cleaning up my street location then they can find the money to put me in an apartment,” the man told outreach workers, according to an email. “We will continue to encourage client to accept placement until we are able to secure permanent housing for him.”

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