A new campaign launched by the Sergeants Benevolent Association (SBA) in New York City is encouraging members of a police union, as well as their family and friends, to track “the homeless lying in our streets, aggressive panhandlers, people urinating in public or engaging in open-air drug activity, and quality-of-life offenses of every type.” The crusade comes in the midst of recent media hysteria over homeless people allegedly committing crimes, and advocates fear the campaign will exacerbate the NYPD’s crackdown on the city’s homeless population.
In an email obtained by the New York Post, SBA President Ed Mullins called on law enforcement and members of the public to photograph and identify the location of homeless people seen in the city and upload photos of them on Flickr. Union officials will then alert the proper authorities.
“We, ‘the Good Guys,’ are sworn to protect our citizens,” Mullins wrote. “Shouldn’t our public officials be held to the same standard?” The social media campaign, he says, is a direct response to “failed policies, more homeless encampments on city streets, a 10 percent increase in homicides, and the diminishing of our hard-earned and well-deserved public perception of the safest large city in America.”
The city’s homeless population is under heightened public scrutiny, due in large part to more frequent media coverage of isolated quality of life offenses, or “conduct that demoralizes community residents and business people because it involves acts that create physical disorder or reflect social decay.” As a result, Mayor Bill de Blasio and NYPD leaders have devoted more attention to tackling the city’s growing homeless population. They recently rolled out a plan to provide mental health services to homeless people and train 10,000 officers to better interact with the undomiciled, or homeless, population.
In the past few years, the homeless population has soared to levels not seen since the Great Depression, with 58,761 homeless people sleeping in shelters and thousands more in the streets on any given night. In Fiscal Year 2014, 42,000 children were homeless. Affordable housing is currently the number one cause of homelessness in the city, and shelters, which are legally required to provide temporary housing, are overburdened.
“I’m not surprised this campaign is coming from SBA. This is the same SBA that was opposed to the Community Safety Act, the same SBA that opposed Judge Shira Scheindlin’s Floyd ruling (which found the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk policy unconstitutional),” Jean Rice, Founding Board Member of Picture the Homeless, told ThinkProgress. “What I am concerned about is that SBA assumes that the average citizen would know what constitutes vagrancy and loitering. I’m concerned the SBA does not encourage citizens to document every violation of public safety or quality of life but only ones done by homeless people.”
Rice, who has lived in NYC since 1945 and was previously homeless, argues quality of life offenses are used to target the undomiciled — who are disproportionately people of color. The same policies are not applied to people across the board, such as hockey kids, who come from Upstate New York or Connecticut and drink and urinate publicly — but aren’t considered public safety risks. “If you have a cart with you and appear to be homeless, the NYPD will immediately ask for your ID, run you through the computer to make sure you don’t have outstanding warrants, and put you through the system,” he said.
“Before I came to New York, I witnessed the white-only signs. Unemployed Afro- Americans were rounded up, incarcerated, and then leased out to plantation owners. Under Bratton, this police department uses loitering statutes and vagrancy statutes reminiscent of Jim Crow,” Rice continued. “Police officers are supposed to serve and protect, which means equal protection and due process.”
But instead of protecting a vulnerable population, city officials have put a target on homeless people’s backs over the past few decades. In the early 1990s, Mayor David N. Dinkins authorized the destruction of homeless encampments. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani declared that homeless people did not have the right to sleep on sidewalks, and could be arrested for refusing to seek shelter. Mayor Michael Bloomberg promoted for-profit shelters and cut funding for shelters that failed to place residents in permanent housing in a short amount of time — causing the homeless population to swell.
And today, homeless people are also criminalized in places they are legally allowed to be. In 2012 report from the Center for Constitutional Rights noted that NYPD officers routinely wait outside of shelters and stop people as they’re coming out. They also enter shelters to conduct searches. Authorities now target individuals who offer assistance to the city’s undomiciled. Last February, volunteers were prevented from handing out free blankets at train and bus stations. “We were told we can’t give them out because they don’t want the homeless to get too comfortable there,” one spokeswoman told 1010 WINS.
Since taking office in 2014, de Blasio has pledged to tackle the burgeoning homeless rate and clean up the mess left by his predecessors. In May, he unveiled a plan to funnel $100 million into programs combating homelessness. And last week he announced a $22 million initiative to identify homeless people in need of mental health services and provide appropriate treatment.
But the initiative comes on the heels of a renewed push — supported by Bratton — to crack down on quality of life offenses as a means to prevent future crimes.
“If you neglect this, it becomes more serious. If you neglect that, it becomes even more serious,” Bratton explained to City & State magazine. “We’ve been there before. We were there in the 1970s and ’80s. Those of you in this room that are old enough to remember what the ’90s looked like to this city. And that’s part of the issue at the moment. Half the people of this city were not living here 10 or 15 years ago.”
According to Rice, Picture the Homeless and other coalition members of Communities United for Police Reform will continue pushing for better treatment of the city’s undomiciled population.
“The pattern is that most — but not all — officers seem to think that there’s a different constitutional standard when you approach a person who is undomiciled,” Rice concluded. “To me that’s un-American and divisive and contrary to the concept of the 14th Amendment.”