Chief-Leader
October 19, 2015 5:30 pm

 

Homeless Advocates Demand Police Back Off

By MARK TOOR

Picture the Homeless
GIVE US A BREAK: Members of Picture the Homeless rallied with faith leaders outside City Hall to demand an end to NYPD enforcement efforts, ‘On 125th St., people whose feet are so swollen they don’t fit into their shoes are being pushed out of what little home they have by police,’ said one clergywoman.

An advocacy group for the homeless rallied on the City Hall steps Oct. 14, “demanding an end to rampant violations of the rights of homeless people by the NYPD under Mayor de Blasio.”

“On 125th St., people whose feet are so swollen they don’t fit into their shoes are being pushed out of what little home they have by police,” said the Rev. Donna Schaper of Judson Memorial Church on Washington Square.

‘A Moral Issue’

“Many of us have extraordinary respect for Mayor de Blasio and his multiple efforts with the police and for the homeless,” she continued. “Still, we cannot be silent while people are being dropped off at places far from their carts of few possessions. This is not a political isse. It is a moral issue.”

Rev. Schaper was one of a number of faith leaders who joined Picture the Homeless, an organization created by homeless people, at the rally.

“The homeless issue in New York City is a racial-justice issue,” said Norman Siegel, a civil-rights attorney who served 15 years as director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. “The people who live on the street are disproportionately black and Latino. If the people living on the street looked like me, we would handle this problem very differently.”

“I deal with the total harassment and disrespect from the police,” said one of the group’s members, Floyd Parks, who is usually found on 125th St. “We are treated like animals and eyesores rather than people.”

Police Commissioner Wil­liam J. Bratton declared last month that the area, where homeless people who spend the night at shelters on Wards Island hang out during the day, is the epicenter of the city’s homeless problem. He assigned a unit of 38 officers to deal with it.

Clearing Them Out

Officers cleared an encampment of the homeless near the Metro-North station, threatening summonses or arrests for anyone who would not leave. Chief of Patrol Carlos Gomez said cops had drawn up a list of more than 80 homeless camps across the city and would shut them all down.

“I have been on the street the last six months,” Mr. Park said. “I feel safer there, cleaner, than in a shelter. I lost valuable property in the shelter system. The Mayor should fix up all these vacant buildings and lots over here for the homeless. We need somewhere permanent to stay. Shelters don’t help.”

Many of the homeless avoid shelters because of concerns about robberies or attacks, rules about check-in times that conflict with work or other activities, inability to bring pets or shopping carts inside, or a general disposition against being housed in large, rule-bound facilities.

Even so, the number of New Yorkers in shelters increased to 58,000 in August, almost double the population 10 years earlier. The number living on the streets—based on an annual volunteer count that most experts say is too low—has hovered around 3,000 for the past several years.

“Voices like the New York Post will continue to erroneously conflate homelessness with substance abuse and mental illness, and demand increased policing as the solution,” said Yul-San Liem of Communities United for Police Reform. “That doesn’t mean people with more-level heads should listen to them.”

‘Solve It. Don’t Pretend’

“When you seize the papers, IDs and documents of people who are just trying to get a good night’s sleep, you only worsen the problem,” said Rabbi Megan Goldman of Columbia Hillel. “Our job as citizens, people of faith, human beings is to eradicate homelessness by making housing more affordable, allocating more resources to housing development, helping people find access to housing—not arresting people to pretend that we’ve solved the problem already.”

The NYPD referred a reporter seeking comment to Mr. de Blasio’s office.

“The de Blasio administration has consistently taken a humane and constitutional approach to serving the city’s homeless population,” said spokeswoman Ishanee Parikh. She said the Mayor had budgeted more than $1 billion in additional funds over the next four years to address homelessness, “including additional street outreach to ensure individuals on the street know their shelter options, opening 500 new beds in churches for the street homeless population who reject traditional shelter, and opening up drop-in centers 24 hours.”

Further, she said, more than 38,000 people left shelters for permanent housing over the past fiscal year, and Mr. de Blasio has launched a program to develop 1,247 new apartments as permanent housing for the homeless.

“We’re not arresting our way through homelessness,” she said.

Hanging Out is Legal

Mr. de Blasio spoke about the homeless problem in August. “I can say the right thing to do is if you see someone violating a law, if you see someone in any way doing something inappropriate, call 3-1-1 and report it, and there will be a follow-up,” he said. But, he added, “in a free society, there is no law against sitting on a park bench, minding your own business. There is no law against standing outside a grocery store and asking for spare change. It may not be something we love, but it’s not, per se, illegal.

“There are laws against in any way menacing people, blocking the ability of the public to move around, any kind of violent or aggressive behavior, and those will be dealt with as criminal-justice matters.”

In September, he said, “This is a historic problem, decades old. It has gotten worse as the economy has squeezed people more, and the price of housing in this city has gotten sky-high. But what I think I have to do better is explain the origins of this problem and show people what we’re doing about it.”