Not long after the city embarked on Mayor Eric Adams’ initiative to break up New York City’s homeless encampments and offer services to the undomiciled, those witnessing the regular sweep operations began to see a pattern emerge.
Several undomiciled individuals who have experienced the sweeps, and homeless rights advocates who have become watchdogs of the process, say that since the mayor’s policy was announced in late March, they have observed many of the same NYPD officers and Department of Homeless Services (DHS) agents arrive time and time again.
But seeing the same faces on the homeless beat is something that those on the street believe creates a culture of intimidation and bias.
When Adams declared that he would be initiating a five-borough wide outreach program that would both look to remove those using structures to sleep in public places while also providing them with services, criticism swiftly began to flood in from those who feel the city is clearing away the camps with too much aggression and heavy-handedness.
Now, halfway through May, with the same faces popping up time and time again, some homeless rights advocates suggest it reflects a lack of transparency.
Social worker with the Safety Net Project Craig Hughes who often spends time speaking with the homeless is concerned about the fact the same officers and DHS workers are spotted at Manhattan encampments, feeling that when DHS arrives at a site flanked by the NYPD it makes them an extension of law enforcement.
“It’s a real problem. It is the same officers at the sweeps and it’s very troubling,” Hughes told amNewYork Metro. “Some of our clients will even call the outreach workers the outreach police because they come into the sweeps, and they are closely related to the NYPD. Unfortunately, outreach has increasingly become a soft-arm of the police.”
Hughes also claims that the NYPD have been spotted driving DHS workers to the sweep locations.
amNewYork Metro learned from the NYPD that these officers are assigned to the Business Improvement Deployment Team, a unit comprised of city agencies such as NYC Health and Hospitals, the Department of Sanitation, and NYC Department of Consumer and Worker Protection to address quality of life conditions and homeless conditions.
In response to the criticism, the NYPD states their involvement in the encampment removals is merely to ensure the safety of everybody involved.
Yet Hughes pointed the finger of blame at the mayor’s office for assigning the Business Improvement Deployment Team to deal with these sweeps after local businesses in Midtown complained about conditions there.
“Much of what Eric Adams is doing is sort of rolling back small gains that had been won during [former Mayor Bill] de Blasio, one of those is we’re really seeing a full on engagement of the NYPD and DHS. That’s a new level of connection that we haven’t seen,” Hughes added.
On May 11, during a City Council Public Safety Executive Budget hearing, NYPD’s role in homeless encampments sweeps was brought question, specifically the Strategic Response Group (another constant presence in many of the sweeps.)
The NYPD reaffirmed during the hearing that the SRG’s role in regard to homeless encampments is to keep the peace.
Queens Council Member Tiffany Caban shared via Twitter that the SRG unit has been receiving a lot of attention for what has been said to be abusive tactics when responding to protests and homeless sweeps. She questioned what the added costs are to include homeless sweeps to SRG’s detail.
“Public Safety executive budget hearing happening now. SRG unit getting lots of public heat lately bc of abusive tactics responding to protests & homeless sweeps. Curiously, NYPD has no answers to: How much overtime $ for SRG for homeless sweeps? What’s the units headcount?” Caban wrote on Twitter.
Public Safety executive budget hearing happening now.
SRG unit getting lots of public heat lately bc of abusive tactics responding to protests & homeless sweeps. Curiously, NYPD has no answers to:
How much overtime $ for SRG for homeless sweeps? What’s the units headcount? 🦗
— Tiffany Cabán (@tiffany_caban) May 11, 2022
According to the mayor’s office, DHS workers visit encampments at least once without an NYPD officer present to offer shelter or safe haven accommodations while also giving occupants at least 24-hour notice before arriving alongside the NYPD and DSNY.
When reached for comment the mayor provided the following statement:
“Our outreach teams, made up of multiple city agencies focused on helping New Yorkers, are out in the streets every day making sure that every New Yorker living on the street knows they have a better option. Every single person in this city deserves to live with dignity and enjoy clean public spaces, and we are working actively to making that a reality,” Adams said.
Still, those experiencing homelessness who deal with the team firsthand not only argue that the practice should have been made clear from the start, it also makes them worry it could lead to abuse.
Johnny Grima, a homeless man in Lower Manhattan has been arrested about five times now for refusing to give up his tent. He too says he has seen the same DHS and NYPD officers at almost every sweep.
“I think that the NYPD sends the same people for two reasons: One because what they are requiring their officers to do is super messed up and eventually you’ll get an officer refusing to abuse homeless people. The officers they do send don’t have a problem with abusing homeless people,” Grima told amNewYork Metro.