Last summer, the New York Police Department (NYPD) began a concerted effort to target a growing community of homeless people living on the streets of East Harlem, issuing “move along” orders and threatening arrest, tickets, or the destruction of their property if they didn’t comply. Now the homeless and advocates are fighting back against the practice.
On Thursday, the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) filed a complaint on behalf of Picture the Homeless, an organization that represents many of those targeted in Harlem, calling on the city’s Commission on Human Rights to investigate the NYPD. It alleges that the enforcement efforts against the homeless, even if they haven’t broken any laws, violates the Community Safe Act, which prohibits “bias-based profiling,” because the police are targeting people based on their housing status. The group claims the complaint is the first major action brought under the act.
An NYPD spokesperson and a spokeswoman for the mayor’s office both told the New York Times the complaint would be reviewed once they received it. The mayor’s office said the city “respects the rights of homeless New Yorkers and has put in place a new comprehensive plan to reduce homelessness,” while the police spokesman said, “The N.Y.P.D.’s outreach services and interactions involving the homeless are carried out in a lawful and appropriate manner.”
The complaint says otherwise. “The NYPD has systematically dismantled [the homeless] community through its use of ‘move along’ orders targeted at homeless people who do nothing more than stand, sit, rest, or gather with friends in public spaces,” the complaint states. “Like all people, homeless people have the freedom to decide where and how to spend their time.”
“The police take advantage of our powerlessness as homeless people,” Chyna Burke, a member of Picture the Homeless, said in a statement. “Cops move us from spot to spot every thirty or forty-five minutes. I’m not doing anything illegal.”
Jazmin Berges, another member, agreed. “When I was sleeping on the streets, they’d come through every couple of hours and tell us to move along, and threaten to arrest us or throw our belongings away if we didn’t.” Doc, another member, said, “Even when we’re just standing around, they tell us to move along.”
The NYCLU says many of the homeless receive a number of police orders in a single day and have to move from block to block. It argues the police department’s actions are “highly disruptive” to the tight-knit community that the street homeless have formed, one that the homeless say they can’t find in a city shelter. It also says there are no drop-in centers in the area where the homeless might spend time, use a bathroom, or shower.
One incident gained particular attention in October when caught on video. According to a report from Gothamist, NYPD and city parks department employees showed up to an area inhabited by the homeless in East Harlem, told the homeless they had to move, and then began throwing all of their belongings into a dump truck, including important medications and identification papers.
The NYCLU complaint alleges that the NYPD’s actions are not the result of individual officers’ decisions, but a concerted effort authorized by the city itself. As evidence, it points to numerous conversations with officers who said they were working under orders directly from the office of Mayor Bill de Blasio (D). While de Blasio has undertaken many different initiatives aimed at helping the city’s homeless population, such as committing to getting all homeless veterans housed, he has also taken a tough line. In September, he visited a homeless encampment in the Bronx and said, “We don’t accept encampments of homeless people in this city. It’s not fair to anyone. It’s not fair to our neighbors; it’s not fair to those who are homeless.” While he said he wants to give the homeless shelter and services, he also vowed to clean up the encampment and get rid of all of them throughout the city.
The city’s shelters have also become notorious for poor and sometimes dangerous conditions. An audit in December found that 87 percent of units had health and safety concerns like mold or blocked fire escapes, while 53 percent had evidence of rodents, roaches, or other vermin. A scorecard released by the mayor’s office in February showed 21,401 open code violations in shelters. Meanwhile, this year began with high-profile episodes of violence, with one East Harlem shelter resident found dead with his throat slashed and a homeless woman and her two children stabbed to death in a hotel the city was using to house the homeless.