Criminalizing poverty: Homeless in Harlem complain of NYPD harassment

The crackdown on homeless appears to stem from official policy by the city

Published June 19, 2016 6:00PM (EDT)

 (AP/Seth Wenig)
(AP/Seth Wenig)

Living on the streets of East Harlem, Jazmin Berges wasn’t surprised to watch NYPD officers dump her belongings into a garbage truck. It was last summer, and police had demanded that she and her friends, sitting in Marcus Garvey Park, leave. When Berges, according to her account, protested that they weren’t causing any trouble, officers told her to “shut up;” they then confiscated a pushcart containing her clothes, blankets and a Bible, and destroyed it. Berges didn’t interfere. She knew they would have arrested her had she tried.

Advocates say that Berges’ experience is commonplace amid a widespread police crackdown in the neighborhood.

“The police department can be very cruel at times,” says Berges, a member of Picture the Homeless who spent years on the streets of East Harlem, a neighborhood where rapid gentrification is colliding against a large homeless population. “It’s gone. It’s crushed. It’s a garbage truck.”


(Jazmin Berges)

In May, the New York Civil Liberties Union filed a complaint on behalf of Picture the Homeless with the city’s Commission on Human Rights alleging that the NYPD last summer launched “a concerted effort to disrupt East Harlem’s community of street homeless people by ordering them to ‘move along’ when they violated no laws and were merely present on streets, sidewalks, and in other public spaces.” When someone, like Berges, “refuses to comply or expresses disagreement with the order, officers often threaten or carry out arrests, ticketing, removals to psychiatric hospitals, or destruction of their property.”

The crackdown appears to stem from official policy. According to the complaint, officers from East Harlem’s 25th Precinct have told Picture the Homeless members and staff that police superiors instructed them to issue “move along” orders during roll call and that Mayor Bill de Blasio “wants the area cleaned up.”

Responding to an interview request, de Blasio spokeswoman Monica Klein emailed that “The City respects the rights of our homeless New Yorkers and has put in place a new comprehensive plan to reduce homelessness.” A spokesperson for the Commission on Human Rights says that the complaint is being reviewed.

If there is such a policy, however, it would dovetail with NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton’s longtime embrace of “broken windows” policing, which holds that cracking down on small-scale quality of life issues helps bring down more serious crime. Beginning last summer, The New York Post began to hammer the mayor for letting street homelessness run wild. It hit de Blasio where he was weak, and alongside fear-mongering about a nonexistent crime surge became a key talking point in a conservative campaign to paint the mayor as a feckless liberal returning New York to the bad old days.

The Post’s headlines included: "Bums think de Blasio is the best mayor ever," "Third World diplomats say NYC is grosser than the Third World," "Going to the park? Don’t trip on a bum," "Squeegee man is city’s latest blast from the past,” and “Cops part sea of bums in Harlem ahead of papal visit.”

By August, former Mayor Rudy Giuliani was boasting that he’d personally visited a police precinct to complain about a homeless man on his street. Giuliani, by his own account, chided the cops: “You chase 'em and you chase 'em and you chase 'em and you chase 'em, and they either get the treatment that they need or you chase 'em out of the city." Meanwhile, one police union, the Sergeants Benevolent Association, urged members to take pictures of homeless people—and uploaded them online.

On Sept. 2, the hysteria took on more a respectable guise as The New York Times reported that 125th St. “between Park and Lexington Avenues appears at times to be a street of zombies” thanks to the large numbers of homeless people high on a synthetic cannabinoid called K2.

Bratton and the mayor took notice. The police commissioner announced the creation of a new unit to attack homelessness in East Harlem, and law enforcement cracked down on K2, driving it out of East Harlem bodegas. Three weeks after the original K2 story was published, a Times article by the same reporter marveled at “the sudden spotlight on the one-block stretch.”

By November, de Blasio appeared to be on the defensive, saying the administration had made a major mistake in its approach to homelessness—or at least to communicating that approach to the public. Polls showed de Blasio’s support plummeting, especially amongst whites, with many citing homelessness and crime as major concerns. The media-fomented scandal tarnished de Blasio’s image. But it’s not clear that Bratton, who seemed to stoke public criticism without his boss's permission, took issue with the media campaign: it ultimately gave him more leeway to double down on his favored policing methods.

In January, the NYPD circulated a memo directing officers on how to deal with encampments and “hot-spots of homeless persons,” which were defined as “outdoor locations where two or more individuals are gathered without a structure,” including “parks or other popular areas where homeless individuals convene.”

Officers were instructed to deal with encampments and hot-spots only in coordination with a multi-agency task force, and to confiscate and voucher “reasonably small” items if a person would not remove them from the scene on their own. Larger or hazardous items were to be discarded. While the memo seemed directed at ensuring that police did not discard important personal items like medication and identification, it also served to confirm that a large-scale program to target homeless people was underway.

Bratton recently took to the pages of the conservative Manhattan Institute’s City Journal to defend broken windows in an article co-authored by one of its principle architects, George L. Kelling.

“Apart from the deterrent effect that minor arrests may have on individual offenders, the management of public spaces to reduce disorderly behavior also lessens daily opportunities for crime,” Bratton and Kelling wrote. “Just as disorder encourages crime, order breeds more order.”

It’s unclear, however, why policing would deter someone from being homeless: it’s not a way of life that most actively seek out.

In response to a request for an interview with an NYPD official, Salon received this curt response by email: “The NYPD's outreach services and interactions involving the homeless are carried out in a lawful and appropriate manner.”


If the problem were really about K2, that problem now seems to be mostly gone: homeless people report that a crackdown on bodega sales has all but dried up the supply. That aggressive policing targeting homeless people continues suggests that the crackdown might have been more pretext than noble cause.

“K2 is simply being used as an excuse to try to make it seem to the public that these people are deserving of mistreatment and abuse,” says Alyssa Aguilera, co-executive director of the advocacy group VOCAL-NY, criticizing the police rhetoric around K2 as sensational and overblown.

As for Berges, she says that police told her to move every day when she was on the streets, even as she obsessively focused on her hygiene, carefully planning when and where to shower and do laundry, in an effort to not look homeless and not get hassled. Police always asked her to move. But she had nowhere to go.

“That’s the problem,” says Berges, who recently moved into transitional housing and hopes to soon find an apartment of her own. “We were always walking; we were always moving. We would get tired, we would sit on the train and just ride until we weren’t tired.”

On Park Ave., just below the Metro-North tracks, a group of homeless black men recently shared stories of police harassment just after an NYPD van pulled away from the curb.

“They told us we can’t be sitting here, we gotta’ move,” says Jamyles, 43, who believes that he has an open warrant stemming from K2.

“Police is constantly out here criticizing people, saying things and telling us where we can’t sit, where we can sit,” he says. “And it’s not necessary… We on the struggle. We homeless.”

“It doesn’t matter where we go, they always coming and tell us to move,” says another homeless man, who assumes he has an open warrant, probably stemming from an open container. “Any chance they get, they try to give us tickets… Many of us don’t even go to court because there are so many tickets.”

Police in cities around the country have cracked down hard on homeless people on the streets in recent years, as the number of visibly homeless people has soared alongside housing prices, says Megan Hustings, the interim director of the National Coalition for the Homeless. “Homelessness services funding has not kept up with the need nationally.”

In New York, the number of homeless people in shelters began to grow during the Giuliani administration, fluctuated for most of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s time in office, and then skyrocketed after Gov. Andrew Cuomo cut rental subsidies, and Bloomberg eliminated the program, in 2011.

The result, according to advocates, was a booming number of people in shelters and a smaller number, lacking access to housing, mental healthcare, and other supports, who make their home on the streets. While de Blasio is pursuing investments in supportive housing, his administration still relies on policing in a futile effort to make that all-too-visible tip of a much larger crisis disappear.

“What we’ve seen is that these laws have led to an ongoing dehumanization of people experiencing homelessness,” says Hustings. She says that police have “become the first response to homeless as opposed to social services or housing or other sorts of humane response.”

The National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty reports that bans on sleeping, loitering, camping and panhandling skyrocketed between 2011 and 2014 even as funding for homeless services and housing has failed to meet the need. The crackdowns effectively criminalize the mere status of being homeless.

Bernard Harcourt, a political theorist and policing expert at Columbia Law School, emails that this reflects a “recurring problem in the city of turning social problems into policing disorders. It's chronic and the cost typically falls on the most vulnerable and marginalized in our communities… The problem is that we've turned the police, institutionally, into the default, go-to responders. In large part, it's because they have enforcement authority, which speeds up the interaction. The trouble, fundamentally, is that we don't seem, as a society, to have the social patience to deal with social issues through social processes.”

In Los Angeles, the city has been locked in long-running legal battles over measures to shut down encampments and confiscate belongings. Last year, Honolulu began what its mayor has called a “war on homelessness” but that actually looks a lot more like a war on homeless people: closing parks at night, banning sitting and lying on sidewalks and breaking up a large homeless encampment. Homeless people sued the city, according to the Washington Post, alleging that the city illegally confiscated and destroyed medicine, identification and food.

Maria Foscarinis, the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty’s executive director, says that de Blasio has generally moved homelessness policy in the right direction.

“This is striking to me in New York City because the mayor actually has a pretty good plan” to deal with homelessness by investing in housing, says Foscarinis. “Pursuing criminalization at the same time is at cross purposes with that plan.”

In New York, city data show that the enforcement of low-level offenses has declined significantly in recent years: by 2015 criminal summonses fell 45 percent since 2009 and marijuana arrests were down 69 percent since 2011. But critics say that enforcement is still too aggressive, and summonses for public consumption of alcohol remained high as of 2014. In East Harlem, homeless people say that open warrants for small-time offenses are the norm.

“The NYPD is still deeply committed to the broken windows theory and the mayor has reinforced this, and of course Bratton has reinforced this, so the fact that we might see some aggressive policing toward homeless people comes as no surprise,” says Alex Vitale, a professor of sociology at Brooklyn College and expert on policing and homelessness.

Jose, an immigrant from Mexico lying on the grass in Marcus Garvey Park, says that police make his already rough life much worse.

“You do nothing and they give you a ticket for nothing,” he said, speaking in Spanish and looking much older than his professed 27 years. He complains that police kick him in the legs to roust him from sleep, and estimates that he has received five tickets in the last two months. There is a warrant out for him but what can he do? He can’t pay the fines. The NYPD seems to want homeless people out of East Harlem without much an idea as to where they should go.

“The NYPD does not have the right to tell anyone to move off of public space,” says Berges, sitting at a McDonald’s in the Bronx, near her transitional apartment. “That’s why it’s public space. And there is no law against homeless people sitting or occupying public space.”

By Daniel Denvir

Daniel Denvir is a writer at Salon covering criminal justice, policing, education, inequality and politics. You can follow him at Twitter @DanielDenvir.

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