New York police scattered about a dozen homeless people from the foot of a Harlem train station Wednesday ahead of Pope Francis’ visit to the city, which will include a stop at a Catholic school located near the long-standing informal encampment on 125th Street.
The school Francis is visiting is 13 blocks away. William Burnett, an advocate for the homeless, is dubious of the city’s rationale for sweeping the Harlem encampment, telling Newsweek that the city is “using [Francis] as an excuse” to drive the camp’s residents elsewhere.
Cops reportedly warned that they would ticket and arrest anyone who didn’t vacate the informal camp.
“How can they move me for someone coming here for a couple hours? Just because we are a subculture doesn’t mean we don’t exist,” a man identified as Ian G said during the sweep. “Go to Washington Heights or something where you got Roman Catholics. This is Harlem,” he said according to the New York Post, which covered the raid under the headline “Cops part sea of bums in Harlem ahead of papal visit.”
The camp at the foot of the commuter train station on 125th Street in Harlem had been repeatedly cleared by police at the start of September as well, after the New York Post highlighted the camp’s denizens in one of its series of articles assailing the city’s homeless. Despite those previous dispersals, there were “more than a dozen” people camped below the station on Wednesday morning when the pre-Pope sweep took place according to the Daily Mail.
The city generally dispatches both officers and social workers to encampments in the days prior to a final sweep to relocate people, in hopes of cajoling them to move along voluntarily. But many homeless people dislike sleeping in shelters, which are not necessarily safer than the informal, organic communities that form at places like the Harlem train overpass. And the broader social services that outreach teams are hoping to provide to the homeless are already stretched thin in New York.
Even with such preliminary outreach, breaking up encampments is detrimental to broader efforts to ameliorate homelessness, according to the federal government’s working group on the issue. “The forced dispersal of people from encampment settings is not an appropriate solution or strategy, accomplishes nothing toward the goal of linking people to permanent housing opportunities, and can make it more difficult to provide such lasting solutions to people who have been sleeping and living in encampments,” the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) wrote in August.
The group also warns against formalizing camps in a lasting way for fear that such an approach diverts resources from permanent housing and counseling. Few cities have extended such official recognition to camps, but Seattle is trying to use three sanctioned tent zones as a platform for the longer-term outreach work that is critical to Housing First policies.
The federal criticism of camp-clearing practices at the local level corresponds with a broader critique of municipalities that treat homelessness like a crime. Criminalizing homelessness is both ineffective at reducing homelessness and far more expensive than simply putting people in permanent housing either for free or with heavy public subsidies. Soon, communities that take that approach may find it harder to land federal homelessness funding for social services, shelters, and affordable housing construction.