‘Fascism works like that’: homeless New Yorkers struggle amid police sweeps

Sinthia Vee is not sure where her art supplies went.

“That’s a big old question mark," ella dijo, sitting outside Tompkins Square Park in Manhattan’s East Village neighborhood, on a recent sunny afternoon. It will rain soon.

Vee said she was sitting in solidarity with others from New York’s homeless community who – like her – had just had their encampments removed.

A painter at heart whose only idea of her age is “old enough to remember a lot of things from the 80s”, Vee was now worrying about the medicine bags and art supplies she had kept in her tent that were now missing. “I lost a bunch of things that day because it was insane and we moved around a lot.”

She feared the medicine bag, like many other belongings of homeless people the city is trying to remove, were thrown in a compactor.

This haze – of where things went, where things go – has become a common experience for those trying to survive the string of removal of homeless encampments across the city under its new Democratic mayor, Eric Adams. Adams is building up to keeping promises he made on the campaign trail on addressing the problem of homelessness by building more shelters.

En años recientes, New York City has seen a surge in homelessness: in February alone, there were nearly 50,000 people in the homeless shelters, whereas the total number of homeless people in shelters was only a little over double that number in all of 2021.

During his campaign, Adams dicho that he would pair up police with mental health service providers to address homelessness, and that there is “nothing dignified about sleeping on the streets”. But homeless advocates have slammed Adams’s tactics as simply retreading old policies that have failed to meaningfully address the underlying problems causing homelessness and are, De hecho, more geared to generating sympathetic headlines in the city’s media.

Johnny Grima, who has been on the streets since he was a teenager, has been on the frontlines of protests against the city’s strict moves against homeless people since Adams became mayor in January.

He said while every administration has controversial measures against homelessness, it’s Adams’s “toxic” rhetoric on the issue that makes him stand out.

“I think fascism works like that – as soon as there’s a tightening of the belt or any sort of shift into harder times, that fascist and oppressive elements within countries will immediately try to attack the most vulnerable," él dijo.

For the homeless, it’s not just a loss of their homes but also a loss of their place of belonging and safety.

Grima is among those who have been brutalized in his efforts to stop being removed.

The first time he was arrested, the officials came and told him and his friends they could sleep there but would have to remove their tents.

“They ended up coming to the conclusion that we could sleep in the cold and wet so long as we didn’t cover ourselves, [y] that we couldn’t have a tent to protect ourselves from the elements,"Añadió.

In late April, he would be arrested again, for the third time, for trying to hold down his tent during a raid. “They threw me on my head," él dijo. He was made to wear an ankle shackle at the hospital, and was cuffed to his bed for hours before he was taken to jail, where he stayed for 12 horas.

The mayor’s office said they don’t authorize any arrests, but the New York police department (NYPD) is part of the multi-agency taskforce that is participating in the sweeps.

The NYPD acknowledged the arrests in a statement, claiming most people from the community have been “cooperative” and a “small number” of people were arrested.

“There have been instances where individuals who have taken over public spaces to create encampments have interfered with city employees carrying out the clearing operations,” the agency said. “In those cases a small number of people have been taken into custody and issued summonses.”

Peter Malvan, a homeless advocate at the Safety Net Project of the Urban Justice Center, said even though a lot of people had their belongings organized and cleaned, their belongings weren’t spared from being thrown away.

“Somebody’s encampment looks like somebody’s living room," él dijo. “All of that was trashed.”

Mike Rodriguez, whose encampment was removed during the initial round from under the BQE bridge in Brooklyn, said he had already sorted out his and his partner’s belongings when he got the notice.

Their belongings, at least what they chose to hold on to, didn’t get thrown out by the authorities.

But it stings Rodriguez nonetheless, because there were things he and his partner, Parker Wolf, wanted to keep but had to throw out, including winter hats, sweaters and sneakers.

They held on to their power outlets, cereal, peanut butter and jelly and some clothes.

The mayor’s office said because each encampment is given prior notice, the authorities remove the belongings when they arrive there and the location hasn’t been cleared.

For those whose belongings are thrown away, like Grima and Ver, the only option is to call 311 to report it.

“You just have to rebuild right away, and try to keep on living,” Grima said.

Two days after Grima’s arrest, the mayor’s office Anunciado a $171m addition to the budget to add more shelters and beds.

But many advocates say Adams’s focus on shelters as a solution doesn’t make a difference for the community because shelters aren’t an answer for them.

As of 29 marzo, dentro de 12 days of starting the crackdowns, city officials had visited 244 locations, and cleared 239 locations.

Only five people accepted offers to move to a shelter.

This is because most homeless people don’t consider the shelters safe and some say the staff themselves can be hostile and abusive. “The staff can say whatever they want – they call you names, belittle, threaten,” Grima said. “They do this to senior citizens and disabled people.”

Malvan echoed these experiences. He said people are “passed around” from one shelter to another for “advocating for themselves”, and have been beaten by security.

The mayor’s office, in response to queries about the alleged abuse, said they are “committed to prioritizing the safety of clients, staff and community members alike”.

The homeless population was also particularly vulnerable during the pandemic, and putting them in shelters during this time, which the CDC recommended against, put them more at risk – as well as the public, Malvan said.

At the shelters, people were made to live with about 20 others in a room, only two feet apart, él agregó. They were made to leave the shelters between 9am and 4pm, so they spent their days in public.

“It’s like they actually created a situation where the pandemic could spread more and it affected everyone," él dijo.

New York City’s homeless population outside shelters were significantly less affected by the pandemic than those in shelters during the first year of the pandemic.

The population in shelters had 12 times the confirmed cases of Covid compared with those outside the shelters, y 17 times more deaths. The Black homeless community had the highest number of cases both in and out of shelters.

Vee, Gima, Rodriguez and Wolf came from different generations and different parts of the country but they arrived at the same crossroad of a homeless policy that has upended their vulnerable lives.

They all have different aspirations. Vee hopes to someday have her own art exhibition.

Gima wants to have a #Me Too moment for the shelters that will expose their conditions.

“Hopefully we fight from the streets because it’s not going to come from the top," él dijo.

Rodriguez and Wolf spend their days scrapping metals to earn a living and buy their food, while looking for a job.

As it began pouring on a cloudy April afternoon, they stood protected under the BQE bridge and surrounded by piles of discarded items – cardboard boxes, a broken stroller, shopping carts and a solitary milk carton.

Rodriguez looked around, getting ready to work.

He’d have to start clearing the items under the bridge.

"Después de todo,” he gestured towards one of the high-rises towering over the bridge, and shrugged, “those guys pay $3,000 per month for the view, Derecha?"

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