Click here to read “City’s Anti-Homeless Sweeps Spark Spirited Tompkins Square Park Protest”
All photos by Olga Fedorova
New York City Mayor Eric Adams has made homeless sweeps one of the defining features of his administration. The sweeps often end with people’s few worldly possessions being tossed in the back of a garbage truck. The City was at it again on Tuesday, dismantling one and threatening another encampment in Chinatown.
“It’s really tiring to have to move again and again and keep losing my stuff. Last time, I lost my wallet and all my money went with it. I understand why they do what they do, but it’s so tiring,” said Damien, who lost his belongings during the recent sweeps.
At the onset of April, Adams began to carry out his plan to “sweep,” or evict, all of the city’s homeless encampments. As of June 9, the city — by way of police, DOT and DSS workers — had evicted 726 encampments, but as of May 3 only 39 people had agreed to go to homeless shelters, the sweeps’ supposed goal.
The NYPD was present at 708 of the 726 sweeps. The practice of evicting homeless encampments increased in the last few months of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s tenure, according to Gothamist, but the NYPD was only present at 30% of sweeps.
In general, when an encampment is destroyed, a version of it moves to a nearby location; some inhabitants stay but others inevitably are lost. A man who was evicted from under the BQE in North Brooklyn began sleeping in the stairwells of the nearby public-housing complex close to a highway entrance ramp and gas station parking lot. Sweeps destabilize communities, further isolating and making vulnerable homeless people.
The encampment under the BQE has been evicted 60 times, the Anarchy Row at Tompkins Square Park at least 14, and the two in Chinatown at least six times each.
“New York City Clean Up” bulletins are the dread of their addressees. The official notices get taped onto poles or walls near the small settlements, declaring a date and location when “the NYC Department of Sanitation, and/or other New York City agencies will complete a clean-up of this location.”
By 10 a.m. on Tuesday morning, most inhabitants of the targeted location at Canal St. and Chrystie St. — an encampment in the shade of Manhattan Bridge’s arch and colonnade — had fled, leaving behind a range of items from ketchup packets, to a Principles of Biochemistry textbook, to bedding, laundry baskets and suitcases.
When The Indypendent got there, Damien and Niko still remained at the site due to broken cart wheels. Damien was hurriedly fixied and loaded his cart so he could leave before cops and social workers accompanied by giant yellow DOT truck would clear out the entire area.
Damien, who has always lived in the area, tries to stay away from the shelter system, citing “terrible” experiences. “This is my home, it’s been my home for 45 years. I’ll probably die here.” Constant moving means Damien has to find a place to sleep on a week-to-week or sometimes day-to-day basis. He explained that sometimes if he has the money, he’ll rent a room. Other times he finds a good spot on the streets. “There are people who have it worse,” shrugged Damien.
Niko, never removing his headphones, appeared equally resigned.
While Damien and Niko understood that another notice was being enforced, their dog Disco was more reluctant to leave. His name was painted in various spots on the colonnade’s wall in small white, red or pink bubble letters, a sign of the months he’d spent living in this home. They’d lived in this particular encampment for over six months. Confused about why he had to leave his blue-gray bedding, Disco barked confusedly at the policemen. When Damien and Niko mounted him onto the cart so they could finally vacate the area, Disco climbed out, went back to his bed and curled up, distressed by the ongoing estrangement. It took a few minutes of coaxing and soothing to convince Disco to leave his home.
One man, Max, remained, asleep on his makeshift bed between two columns, covered by an orange blanket. “COVID helped a lot. I stayed in hotels. Before, I was living with my mom but we got into a fight and I have been living on the streets. This is my sixth sweep,” Max said. Like Damien, he expressed respect and understanding of city workers, saying that he gets along with them.
By 11 a.m., the area was completely emptied and bleached, leaving no evidence of habitation.
• • •
Meanwhile, another encampment watched nervously from the block over at the intersection of Forsyth St. and Canal St., worried that they’d soon be swept again too. The shade from Sara D. Roosevelt Park barely fended against the sweltering heat. People’s belongings were visibly damaged from the sweeps; chairs and crates were clustered compactly and packed in case they had to move that day. This encampment has been moved six times in the last 20 days – doggedly (and seemingly arbitrarily) shoved around in a move to make the city look more appealing to street-scared desk workers Adams is trying to lure back to the office.
“They’ve moved us from Allen street, all the way down here, to Delancey, to the bridge. It never ends. It’s one side of the street to the next to the next, one corner to the next. I’ve lost so much of my stuff; I don’t have most of my stuff anymore,” said Neil. Another notice appeared on Tuesday itself, saying the encampment would be cleared out on tomorrow for the seventh time this month.
Neil, 39, whose street name is Wolf, also expressed a strong aversion to the shelter system. “One day they moved us out to the Bronx. All of a sudden, I was getting locked up, I didn’t even know why. Just because some woman said she knew me, that she was a case manager, and she claimed I needed to be on medication and wasn’t on medication. I had no idea what she was talking about. But I got locked up anyway. The same people who put me in the shelter in the Bronx before are still trying to do the same thing. I’m not going back to no shelter. I want my own place,” said Neil.
He has been in and out of the shelter system for 25 years. “I knew it with my family and after my family. The staff don’t take care of you. They don’t check in on you. I wanted my room door locked, just to feel safe, to be able to sleep, to know I won’t get stabbed or something. But they never let me lock my door.” He gestured at his partner Krissy, sitting next to him, and described how they used to be in the same shelter but they were split up against their will.
In response to the sweep violence prevalent in recent months, many homeless people and others who have spent time in NYC shelters have come out vocally against the shelter systems — both DHS-run and privately-run. Ender, a lead organizer of a newly-formed homeless union at a Midtown shelter who we spoke with in June, pointed out deep system problems in the shelter system but also a lack of basic needs being meet — such as access to nutritious food. “We currently don’t have access to basic necessities such as free laundry and three meals a day even though we’re supposed to be guaranteed rights to them. The city isn’t going to provide these unless we force their hand, and we can’t do that individually…Imagine if we had free therapy or clean bathrooms?” reads the Homeless Union’s recruitment zine.
Isabel, a local Chinatown resident who frequently supports Neil’s encampment by taking individuals to the doctor, helping them get EBT cards, bringing them food and helping them however else they need. “In 2020 during the protests, I got involved with doing some safety for protests and through that experience learned and understood that safety can exist without police,” she told The Indy. She saw DOT workers throwing out people’s belongings during a sweep in front of her building in March. “I remember looking out my window and I could hear the garbage truck idling for a while then I heard the neighbors yelling and screaming, ‘Please don’t throw our things away!’…and it brought me to tears because I thought it was really violent and I was upset because I didn’t know how to help them. Then I found out that there were other people doing sweep defense.”
Isabel discussed with Damien, who had walked up to the Forsyth and Canal encampment, what journalists to be wary of, given their history of dehumanizing depictions of homeless people. Neil echoed this sense of ostracism. “People get scared of us. They see us, and if we get up to walk, they get mad scared. It’s like we’re the scum of earth or like we’re dangerous criminals, when none of that is true. It’s like we don’t belong to society, even though the truth is everyone belongs to society. We mind our own business; we don’t take up space; we don’t block any paths and we help in whatever way we can. Just because someone is homeless doesn’t mean they’ll rob you or come at you.”
Neil expressed gratitude for community and for neighbors who help him out in the ways that they can. Krissy was wearing a white sweatshirt with red lettering that said “Being kind is cool,” a sentiment Neil went into detail about. “We take care of each other; we take care of people. People shouldn’t judge a book by the cover. If you help someone, that person is empowered to help other people, and you never know whose help you’ll need someday. It’s important for people to support each other because everyone leads different lives and goes through different things. No one lives the same life. My mom used to tell me that growing up, and now I understand because, look, I ended up on the street. And I know that’s not my fault. It wasn’t always like this. I used to work. Now I can’t, because of physical injury, so I collect cans and bottles and little scraps to make a living. But people get mad at me for that, which I don’t understand.”
After clearing out the encampment under the arch of Manhattan Bridge, the DOT, NYPD and DSS moved on to tear down a makeshift house beside the bike lane nearby. They used sledgehammers to completely destroy and dispose of the wooden structure and everything inside it. Its resident was not present.
Neil pointed out the bloodlessness and hostility with which the encampments are cleared. “They antagonize me. They pick on me. They have nothing positive or kind to say. Sometimes I feel like these people became cops just because they were picked on when they were younger, and now they want to pick on other people,” he observed wryly. “There’s no other explanation for how they act and how they treat us.”
“We don’t bother anybody,” sighed Neil as we studied the new notice. “All I want is for people to leave us alone.”
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