Parker Wolf’s days of living under the rumbling traffic of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway in Williamsburg came to an abrupt end Monday, when city officials broke up the outdoor homeless encampment where he had stayed.
Members of the NYPD and the Sanitation Department came on March 28 with a warning to Wolf and others living in the illegal, open-air dwelling: Take what you could, but the rest of their belongings was heading for the nearest garbage truck.
So Wolf gathered his shoe collection and rifled through his clothing chest, taking whatever he could and stuffing it into a clear blue plastic bag. Unlike most New Yorkers who leave their homes, there were a great many things she couldn’t take with her to their next destination.
As a homeless person, Wolf was being removed from his makeshift shelter in a whirlwind moment of despair and a race against time to salvage his most valuable belongings. But how did things come to this?
On March 25, Mayor Eric Adams told the New York Times that he would be implementing a new initiative that would see the citywide obliteration of homeless encampments with the target removal number of about 150 sites over a two-week period. Adams called makeshift shelters and encampments “inhumane” yet has failed to follow through on a meaningful solution to a cruel shelter system that homeless individuals say they refuse to subject themselves to.
And while some hailed the removal of homeless encampments from the city’s streets, others wondered whether the city was taking the right approach and serving the best interests of homeless individuals in need of more than a roof over the heads.
The calm before the storm
The underbelly of the BQE along Meeker Avenue housed many homeless residents and at 7am many of them were still sleeping, however, the writing of what would soon take place was already on the wall. Some notices from DSNY hung on support beams, others had been tossed away out of frustration.
Coordinator of North Brooklyn Mutual Aid Homeless Outreach Initiative Benjamin Adam spent the morning attempting to warn those sleeping in the area of the impending removal, feeling somewhat helpless.
“It’s hard to see because I know that most of these folks would like to have accessible shelter that will work for them and the services that they need,” Adam told amNewYork Metro. “It certainly is not a help for them. The solution to homelessness is homes. It’s not arrest and it’s not harassment. It’s not move along orders. The shelter system is dangerous and it’s unacceptably dirty and badly run and dangerous for the folks.”
Adam and several of his colleagues gathered to show support for their friends amidst the impending removal. For several hours the morning was calm with only a single DSNY official who periodically drove by the area, snapping photos on his cellphone. Some began to wonder if the sweep had been canceled.
Out in the cold
Just before noon a convoy of NYPD officers, DSNY cleanup crews, and a member of homeless outreach arrived. Waking up any residents still sleeping, the city workers informed them that their makeshift homes were about to be demolished. They were, however, given an opportunity to choose to take some items–the rest was crushed in a sanitation compactor.
In blistering 28-degree temperatures, those residing under the expressway lost blankets, clothing, and other methods of keeping themselves warm in the cold weather.
“Usually, we have a good relationship with sanitation, they come and pick up our trash. But I guess because we got a new mayor trying to cut down on homelessness,” Wolf told amNewYork as he frantically ran back and forth, perversely forced to throw out his own belongings. “We will keep whatever we can take, basically, but you know, I guess we just gotta move.”
Wolf said he will not heed the mayor’s plea to enter the shelter system, explaining it not only forces him and his partner to be separated, but it is also dangerous. His neighbor under the BQE agreed with that sentiment.
Poking his head out of a tent as he attempted to gather what he could, he said he was attacked in the shelter system while security guards laughed at his plight.
“I am not going back,” Heriberto Medina Jr. told amNewYork Metro. “When I was at a shelter, I was attacked, and I had my skull cracked. I am not going back.”
Medina says he was born and raised in the neighborhood, and this is not the first time he has gone through this procedure.
“At that time, they threw out stuff from when I was a little kid. Pictures and mementos, it was stuff I can’t get back,” Medina said. Becoming emotional, he watched DSNY remove his mattress and crush it in the back of a garbage truck. “Every time crime goes up they blame us. I will find a solution,” he added solemnly.
Creating a large dust cloud, DSNY took chairs, plants, beds, and other belongings and crushed them in a compactor while many of the residents were left with a single bag. Others attempted to lug more of their items away from the scene, hoping they could get further enough away to rebuild.
Local residents were stunned by the display, suggesting the removal amounted to cruelty.
“They’re super respectful. They never ever cause any problems,” Julie Evanoff said, explaining that she can’t understand why the city would treat human beings this way. “I was horrified, I just couldn’t believe it. It’s like out of a dystopian movie.”
The mayor has promised wraparound services for the impacted yet has not divulged what they will be. Mayor Adams hopes that those removed will finally take refuge in the city’s shelter system, overcoming the cynicism and fear many homeless individuals have for it.
The encampment removal is only the first phase of his plan. The next portion includes re-inspection and re-canvassing various areas throughout the New York City to pinpoint other encampments.