Mayor Eric Adams said his administration was pursuing a citywide effort to remove hundreds of makeshift campsites from streets and parks.
“You can’t build a miniature house made out of cardboard on the streets,” Mr. Adams said. “That’s inhumane.”Credit...Stephanie Keith for The New York Times
Mayor Eric Adams said on Friday that his administration was pursuing plans to clear New York City’s streets of makeshift campsites where homeless people live.
Mr. Adams, in a brief interview, provided few details about the initiative, which would require considerable manpower and logistical coordination. The most recent official estimate, in January 2021, put the number of people living in parks and on the streets at around 1,100, which was widely seen as an undercount.
The mayor also did not specify where the people now living in the encampments would go. Nonetheless, he vowed to accomplish what his predecessors had not in addressing a persistent, multifaceted issue.
“We’re going to rid the encampments off our street and we’re going to place people in healthy living conditions with wraparound services,” he said in an interview. When asked about a timeline for his plan, Mr. Adams said, “I’m looking to do it within a two weeks’ period.”
The city’s long-running inability to provide enough of such accommodations — leaving many homeless people to choose to shelter on the streets — has attracted increased attention since the pandemic began and much of daily life receded.
Now, as New York seeks to accelerate its recovery, the issue has become bound up in broader concerns about public safety, especially after several recent violent episodes involving homeless people, both as attackers and victims.
Mr. Adams acknowledged in the interview that the city could not force anyone to stay at a homeless shelter.
“We can’t stop an individual from sleeping on the street based on law, and we’re not going to violate that law,” he said. “But you can’t build a miniature house made out of cardboard on the streets. That’s inhumane.”
The mayor’s initiative, which he discussed at a private fund-raiser for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee on Wednesday, follows another plan he announced last month to keep people from sheltering in the subway system.
Some homeless people have gone to shelters as a result of the plan, but some can still be seen staying on the trains. An employee at the Bowery Residents’ Committee, which does outreach in the transit system, said on Friday that the number of people accepting shelter had roughly doubled recently, to about 20 people a night.
Sign up for the New York Today Newsletter Each morning, get the latest on New York businesses, arts, sports, dining, style and more. Get it sent to your inbox.
The employee, who was not authorized to speak to reporters and requested anonymity, said there had been a drop of 10 to 15 percent in the number of people sleeping on trains at four end-of-line stations where evictions increased last week, although some of those people could have moved to other train lines.
Removing all encampments would require a substantial acceleration of an existing program of “cleanups,” in which teams of sanitation workers, police officers and outreach workers evict people from areas where they have set up camp.
“I’m telling my city agencies to do an analysis block by block, district by district, identify where the encampments are,” Mr. Adams said, “then execute a plan to give services to the people who are in the encampments, then to dismantle those encampments.”
The initiative will presumably be based on regulations detailed on a city web page, where an encampment is defined as “a structure to live under” — including mattresses, tents, tarps and camping setups. Such encampments and “obstructions” are not allowed, the rules say.
The Bowery in Manhattan, February 2020. Homeless people say such sweeps accomplish little more than chasing them from one spot to another.
The Bowery in Manhattan, February 2020. Homeless people say such sweeps accomplish little more than chasing them from one spot to another. Credit...Anna Watts for The New York TimesImageThe Bowery in Manhattan, February 2020. Homeless people say such sweeps accomplish little more than chasing them from one spot to another.
In the first four weeks of January, the city conducted 133 cleanups, a little over half of them in Manhattan, according to information obtained via the Freedom of Information Act by the Urban Justice Center, an advocacy group.
Homeless people and advocates have said such sweeps accomplish little more than chasing people from one spot to another, upending already unstable lives. Historically, the cleanups have often involved throwing people’s belongings away, although officials have denied it.
Craig Hughes, a supervising social worker at the Urban Justice Center, said the mayor’s plan was an escalation of a longstanding city approach that “has always been an effort to hide homelessness rather than to get people housed” and that invariably “leaves people more precarious than they were beforehand.”
Though the vast majority of the roughly 50,000 New Yorkers who are homeless live in shelters, many people who sleep outdoors say they do so because they feel unsafe in shelters, or because they do not want to follow the system’s rules and curfews.
During the pandemic, many people have also avoided barrackslike group shelters for fear of contracting Covid-19. The cleanups flout Centers for Disease Control guidelines that say outdoor encampments should be left in place unless people are being moved to private rooms.
The January 2021 estimate found that about two-thirds of people living on the street were in Manhattan. The Bronx and Brooklyn ranked second and third.
Unlike the tent cities on the West Coast, New York does not have areas where hundreds of people camp together, although there are a few sites, mostly in out-of-the-way areas, with clusters of tents or shacks.