Dozens of protesters gathered in Harlem on September 9 to demand that Mayor Bill de Blasio and the New York City Police Department end their recent crackdown on the city’s homeless population. The rally, organized by the homeless-led activist group Picture The Homeless along with numerous other organizations, was set up in response to the recent eviction of a homeless encampment on 125th Street and Park Avenue.
“We’re pushing back against the de Blasio administration and his Broken Windows policy,” said Nikita Price, the civil rights organizer for Picture The Homeless. “They’re targeting the poorest of the poor. What we do have is our dignity and you will not take that away.”
New York City’s most recent crackdown on its homeless population has been fueled by the local media, particularly the right-wing tabloid the New York Post, as well as the NYPD’s attempts to discredit Mayor de Blasio and advance the narrative that the city is on a violent, crime-filled decline.
The Post has run multiple stories over the summer demonizing homeless people, especially one homeless man not-so-coincidentally located in the neighborhood of the Post’s editor-in-chief. The Sergeants Benevolent Association president Ed Mullins set up a Flickr account earlier last month (which has since been taken down) and suggested that police and citizens “photograph 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.” As a result, Mayor de Blasio, in yet another of many attempts to placate his right-wing, pro-police critics, recently approved a crackdown on homeless New Yorkers. On September 2, the NYPD was sent to break up the homeless encampment on 125th Street and Park Avenue weeks after the Post published a piece on its existence and, of course, blamed the mayor for it.
This crackdown was the last straw for many of the activists on Wednesday. Protesters insisted that the mayor and the city’s elites shouldn’t keep criminalizing homelessness in a city filled with empty buildings and should be more focused on finding people housing.
“Policing the homeless is not a solution whether they’re in the streets or in the shelters,” Price said. “This population needs real and permanent housing solutions. If you walk through every borough of New York City, you see abandoned properties that are owned by the city. That property alone could house every homeless person whether they’re street-homeless or shelter-homeless.”
Protesters began to rally at the location of the encampment at around 11 a.m. on Wednesday. After a few speakers and poets addressed the crowd, Picture The Homeless put on a skit showing the callous way that police often evict homeless people from that spot. Then, in a tribute to a related issue, a man sang the names of people killed by police along with “I Can’t Breathe,” Eric Garner’s last words before dying from a police chokehold, as the chorus. Protesters then chanted and marched to the NYPD’s 25th precinct, where many of the cops who harass homeless people work. At the precinct, as well as throughout the march, protesters held signs with the phone number to City Hall as well as the mayor’s Twitter handle. Organizers repeatedly reminded protesters to tweet the info out and ask people in attendance and people watching from home to call or tweet at the mayor using the #HandsOffTheHomeless hashtag. The protesters marched back to the site of the encampment and ended at a wall where local homeless people are routinely lined up by police before they’re forced to go somewhere else.
For many homeless people, being harassed and shooed away by police like this does nothing to help them and sometimes puts them in dangerous predicaments.
“My fear is that when they ask us to move, I’ll have to move, but I don’t know where I’ll be moving to,” said Angel Starks, a legally-blind 29-year-old homeless woman and member of Picture The Homeless. “At the same time, I fear that it could be more of an unsafe situation. Usually, where I move to is the park, and that’s a situation going on now where I won’t be able to defend myself because of my situation and my disability. And the police are allowing it to happen.”
She went on to explain that many homeless people refuse to go to shelters because of the unsafe environment there, as well as on the street. On the streets and in the shelters, they are often harassed and abused by both police and other civilians.
According to the Coalition for the Homeless, “there were 58,270 homeless people, including 13,985 homeless families with 23,490 homeless children, sleeping each night in the New York City municipal shelter system” in July 2015 with the lack of affordable housing being the primary cause of this problem. About 60 percent of the city’s homeless population is in Manhattan; many of them have mental illness or other severe health problems, and an overwhelming majority of them are black or Latino. And though the homeless population has reached record highs during the de Blasio administration, the surge in the city’s homeless population happened mostly during former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s three terms.
Homeless New Yorkers are often easy targets for media outlets and public officials with political agendas and have few allies able to fight for them. Despite this, many of the homeless activists at Wednesday’s protest are determined to stick together, look out for each other, and continue fighting to be treated like human beings.
“For my safety, I say a prayer,” Starks said. “There’s nothing right now that’s helping me but God. I can’t say that the government or the city or the state is protecting us, and I cannot say that something else is fighting for us other than ourselves.”