On a sunny spring morning in lower Manhattan, residents of a sidewalk encampment were collecting their belongings. The unhoused duo who sheltered on the sidewalk under scaffolding at 38 Eldridge Street, just off Canal, had received notices from the city stating that the location was scheduled for a cleanup on Monday.
“Beginning 4/11/2022, the NYC Department of Sanitation, and/or other New York City agencies, will complete a clean-up of this location,” read the notices, which were taped to the wall next to the encampment. “As of the date of the clean-up, you must leave this location along with your belongings.”
“This is not my first time,” said Neil, one of the residents of the encampment. He called the policy a violation, explaining that the last time his makeshift home had been swept, “I lost everything: brand-new sneakers, socks, shampoo, jeans, gloves, even a cell phone.”
Encampment sweeps are not new: similar efforts provoked a riot in Tompkins Square Park in 1988 and proceeded apace under Rudy Giuliani in the 1990s. Under Bill de Blasio, nearly 10,000 sweeps were conducted by the Department of Sanitation, Department of Homeless Services, and the NYPD between 2016 and 2021, with sweeps even ramping up during the pandemic; De Blasio himself personally called in some of those sweeps, according to recently unearthed emails. But Eric Adams has made the policy an especially public priority.
The mayor’s embrace of his role at the city’s top hype man and his background as a police officer all but guaranteed such a response to arguments put forth by business groups such as the Partnership for New York City. That organization has said that “the number one reason people are resistant to coming back [to in-person work] is fear of the subways, of conditions on the streets, of open abuse of drugs, of homeless mentally-ill people.” (A spokesperson for Adams told Gothamist that the mayor does not feel pressured by business leaders to clear homeless encampments from the streets.)
When combined with Adams’s plan to kick homeless people out of the city’s subways, the renewed emphasis on sweeps has led many of the city’s homeless to feel yet again under attack.
NYPD officials say they have thus far conducted more than 300 encampment sweeps, the majority of which have been in Manhattan. According to Adams, by the end of March, just five people living in those encampments accepted shelter services. These numbers show the reality of sweeps as theater: an estimated 2,400 New Yorkers live on the street without shelter — around 48,000 live in shelters — and almost everyone who loses their encampment remains on the street. Often, like Neil after his last sweep, they just do so without their stuff — including medications or documents such as IDs or Social Security cards — which the city throws out. Adams has said that residents subject to sweeps will receive vouchers for their belongings, but advocates say that is not always true.
“We routinely see them throwing out people’s belongings,” Helen Strom, benefits and homeless advocacy director at the Safety Net Project, a direct services provider, told City & State New York.
“It’s just cruel,” said Sam, who lives in an apartment on Eldridge Street and responded to requests for community support and defense of the unhoused residents of 38 Eldridge on Monday. “They’re my neighbors,” he added.
The majority of the city council also used the word “cruel” to describe the sweeps in a statement released last week by the Progressive Caucus, which comprises thirty-four of the chamber’s fifty-one members. The statement pointed out that while Adams has demanded all encampments be disbanded, he has done so while pushing for a 20 percent cut to the Department of Homeless Services. Taken together, these actions mean only further insecurity, and more incarceration, for the city’s homeless population.
“By demolishing these street encampments, the mayor is telling people, many of whom have nowhere else to go, that they don’t belong,” the Progressive Caucus statement reads, concluding that the caucus’s members “stand unequivocally opposed to the mayor’s actions and demand an immediate and permanent end to encampment sweeps.”
The reasons those who lose their encampments don’t choose to enter the shelter system are manifold: some don’t want to be removed from their partners or families or pets. Others dislike the restrictive and complicated rules that govern such facilities. Still others fear for their physical safety inside the shelters. And some, like Sinthia, a member of the Tompkins Homeless Collective who was present at the 38 Eldridge Street sweep, find it hard to sleep in a dormitory.
“Can you go to sleep in a room with various kinds of strangers?” she asked, going on to mention the health risks that come with shelters. “At my age, I cannot take the risk of getting COVID.”
For those with such concerns, the answer to what would get them off the street is simple: an apartment.
“We aren’t accepting anything less than apartments for everyone,” said Sinthia. “We want housing for homeless people.” She, like many of those assembled at the encampment on Monday, noted that there are more vacant housing units in New York City than there are homeless people but that even seeking a voucher for Section 8 housing entails a long waitlist.
“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,” said Karim Walker, an outreach specialist at the organization Human.nyc, at a rally outside of City Hall last month. “Street sweeps are intended to break spirits and bend wills.”
“Homeless people have been in the subway for years, but then Adams brought it to everyone’s attention,” said Amanda, an independent activist who knows members of the encampment that was swept last week in the East Village, which led to a eight-hour standoff and six arrests. “It’s completely unnecessary when there is more empty housing than there are homeless people in the entire state.”
But instead of more apartments, the homeless are getting more Safe Haven and stabilization beds — though it remains unclear just how many more — and sweeps. The latter, it is worth pointing out, cost two to three times more money than it would to provide housing.
At 38 Eldridge on Monday, the encampment’s residents ultimately agreed to pack up their belongings. That choice may have been influenced by the presence of at least eight NYPD vans, including four from the Strategic Response Group, the NYPD’s oft-criticized counterterrorism and protest-monitoring unit, who arrived on the scene on Monday at around 11 AM.
As a throng of media, activists, and other unhoused New Yorkers watched, with several in the crowd pleading with the sanitation workers, homeless-outreach personnel, and NYPD to stop carrying out the sweeps, the encampment’s residents took down the blankets they had used to create an approximation of privacy, piling their belongings into a pair of suitcases and a shopping cart, deciding with which objects they were willing to part.
After the city workers and most of the crowd had dispersed, little evidence remained of the makeshift home at 38 Eldridge, except for the cleanup notices. Now, they bore a new message. “ERIC ADAMS: DOMESTIC TERRORIST” was scrawled in red pen over the notices, and an additional flier had been added to the wall. Above an image of Adams and Governor Kathy Hochul was a statement Adams made in February when announcing his plan to remove homeless people from the city’s subways: “You must remove the cancer.”