Like many progressive New Yorkers, lots of homeless people were excited when the candidate who campaigned on a platform of police reform and attacking income inequality won the mayoral election. But few were surprised when he turned around and intensified the misguided, punitive Bloomberg/Giuliani-era policies that he promised to end.
Before he even took office, de Blasio made homeless people nervous by appointing Bill Bratton as police commissioner — a man who’s made quite a career for himself, in New York and in Los Angeles, by adopting “broken windows” policing strategies that explicitly target homeless people as emblematic of disorder and needing to be pushed out of public space even when they’re not breaking any laws. And barely a month had passed after de Blasio’s inauguration when Bratton announced a plan to purge fare-paying homeless people from the subway system. We fought back, and we won, but Bratton hit back hard in 2015, implementing a massive citywide campaign that aggressively violated the rights of homeless people for occupying public space.
It is unacceptable for a mayor who campaigned on a platform of police reform to turn around and intensify the unconstitutional policing practices targeting homeless people used by his recent predecessors. These include well-documented incidents [captured on video!] in which homeless people had their belongings seized and destroyed by the cops. De Blasio can and must rein in the NYPD.
When it comes to housing, the first warning sign was his “LINC” housing subsidy for homeless families in shelters, which repeated the mistakes made by Bloomberg’s doomed “Housing Stability Plus” and “Advantage” vouchers — which only lasted a short time and almost always resulted in households returning to the shelter system.
In December the mayor made headlines again by announcing the new HOME-STAT program, a “data-driven” approach to street homelessness that seems to consist of additional social workers and additional police officers.
“HOME-STAT is just more of the same,” said Jesus Morales, a Picture the Homeless (PTH) member who has lived on the street for over 15 years. “More case workers, more cops — that does nothing for me. Meanwhile the cops are treating homeless people like dirt, every day. People are dying out here. Find us housing.”
Committing to create 15,000 units of supportive housing is a solid step, but that’s spread out over 15 years — and we currently have 60,000 homeless people in shelters. Also, as PTH member Arvernetta Henry says, “Lots of people don’t qualify for supportive housing. If you are on a fixed income, don’t have a mental illness or a substance abuse problem, you still need a place to live and you can’t afford to pay rent in New York City.”
Three bills are currently before the City Council that would help address the enormous quantity of vacant property still idling in private and public hands. New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer just released an audit of city-owned vacant lots, and echoed our demands that these become housing for the poorest New Yorkers. These are important steps, but the burden of action is on the mayor.
Good things have happened during de Blasio’s tenure, including a commitment to end the cluster site shelter program, but they’ve happened because of diligent organizing. Few politicians have the courage to challenge the NYPD and the real estate interests that control so much of city politics, but that’s what’s needed if we’re going to truly address homelessness. We still hold out hope that in the latter half of his first term, de Blasio will find that courage.
Picture the Homeless is a New York City-based non-profit organization led by and for homeless people.