Keys, Not Cuffs

by Brendan O’Connor


This week, as temperatures in New York City dipped below freezing for the first time this winter, Governor Andrew Cuomo appeared to remember that there are homeless people — not only in New York City, but in cities around the state — and issued an apparently unprecedented executive order that people be forced off the streets and into shelters. “We have to get people in off the streets,” he said. “This is a state’s New Year resolution, a New Year resolution for the State of New York and in many ways, it’s keeping with the spirit of the holiday season, right?…It’s about love. It’s about compassion. It’s about helping one another and basic human decency.”

The announcement came as a surprise to Mayor Bill de Blasio, who, in November, after failing to make a deal with the governor on a joint fifteen-year plan to build supportive housing for the homeless and mentally ill, announced that the city would fund the development of fifteen thousand units of supportive housing without the state’s help. (“It’s clear that the Mayor can’t manage the homeless crisis and the State does intend to step in ‎with both management expertise and resources in a plan to be released in the State of the State,” a Cuomo spokeswoman said in a statement.) The mayor followed this up in December with the introduction of the ominously named HOME-STAT program — a reference to the NYPD’s COMPSTAT program. “We’ll have the most up-to-date, specific data on the street population we’ve ever had,” de Blasio aid. “And we’ll perform rigorous analyses of that data to determine what people need, what’s working, and what’s not — helping us take important steps to keep street homelessness down in the future.” According to the New York Times, Commissioner William Bratton, long frustrated by the fact that it is not illegal to be homeless, added that the NYPD is investigating whether it would be possible to modify the city’s laws to allow police officers more leeway to force homeless people out of certain areas “if we are able to frame it in a way that the courts don’t overrule.”

“This new program is just more of the same,” Jesus Morales, a member of the housing advocacy group Picture the Homeless, said in a statement provided by a spokesman the day of the mayor’s announcement. “More case workers, more cops — that does nothing for me. Meanwhile, the cops are treating homeless people like dirt, every day. That’s the problem the mayor needs to fix.” (Also, the city already has a so-called Code Blue policy in effect, mandating that shelters allow anyone access during freezing weather.) The next week, Morales filed a notice of claim with the comptroller’s office — the first step in filing a lawsuit he and two other homeless New Yorkers are bringing, with the help of the New York Civil Liberties Union, against the city, the NYPD, and the Department of Sanitation. The three men were sleeping outside a school building in East Harlem when, around 5 AM, police officers and “unidentified individuals in white uniforms, believed to be employees of the New York City Department of Sanitation” woke them up and told them to leave. “One of the officers kicked Mr. Morales,” the notice claims. “Within minutes of their arrival, the Department of Sanitation workers placed personal property belonging to individuals in the second group in garbage trucks and operated the trucks’ compactors to crush the property.”

Altogether, $250 worth of property was allegedly destroyed: Morales’ birth certificate; his social security card; two pairs of sneakers; two sweaters; five pairs of pants; seven t-shirts; two packs of socks; four packs of boxers; one jacket; a shopping cart; soap; toothpaste; a toothbrush; lotion; and deodorant. Morales will sue for unlawful seizure, deprivation of property without due process, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and negligent infliction of emotional distress. (Some of the interaction was caught on school surveillance cameras.) At a press conference announcing the claim, Morales and other homeless people spoke about their experiences both in shelters and with the police, on the street, and speculated that the tactics being used in East Harlem are, essentially a pilot program for HOME-STAT, which will now be implemented around the city. Morales spoke in Spanish, with a translator. “I gotta speak from my heart, bro,” he told me afterwards, lighting a cigarette. “It’s too much.”

It is worth noting that living on the street, even while being targeted by the police, is preferable to living in a shelter — at least for some people. “I have been on the street the last six months,” one of the claimants joining Morales in his suit, Floyd Parks, said in a statement. “I feel safer there, cleaner, than I did in 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.” The mayor, at least, acknowledges this. “The shelters absolutely have to be improved,” he said this week. “That’s part of what we’ve invested in. Look, when I came into office, for years our shelters have been sub-standard.” According to Politico New York, de Blasio claimed that “seventy to eighty percent” of shelter violations according to a report he ordered last year have been cured, adding that “hundreds” of peace officers now patrol the city’s shelters. “But we’re continuing to work on every one of those violations. So, we’re committed to improving the quality of our shelters.”

Last month, though, Comptroller Scott Stringer issued a report on an audit his office conducted that had found one or more hazardous conditions in eighty eight out of one-hundred-one randomly selected apartments in city-funded family shelters. One hundred fifty five family shelters house some twelve-thousand-five-hundred families around the city. “No one wants to be in a shelter,” PTH member Turhan White said in a statement. (On Wednesday night, 58,086 individuals, including both families and single adults slept in homeless shelters.) “Do you have to go through a metal detector to get into your apartment? Do you have someone in your house telling you what time you have to go to bed?” Heightening the policing of shelters is only going to further alienate homeless people who already fear (or are at least suspicious of) representatives of the state.

(The Department of Justice recently filed a statement of interest in a lawsuit in Boise, Idaho, arguing that Eighth Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment render laws which criminalize homelessness unconstitutional: “When adequate shelter space exists, individuals have a choice about whether or not to sleep in public. However, when adequate shelter space does not exist, there is no meaningful distinction between the status of being homeless and the conduct of sleeping in public. Sleeping is a life-sustaining activity — i.e., it must occur at some time in some place. If a person literally has nowhere else to go, then enforcement of the anti-camping ordinance against that person criminalizes her for being homeless.” In 2014, according to the DOJ, forty-two percent of homeless people lived on the street — around a hundred and fifty-three thousand individuals around the country on any given night.)

Andrew Cuomo, though, should certainly know better than to pretend that shelters are anything resembling an answer to the homelessness crisis. In 1991, Cuomo, then head of the non-profit Housing Enterprise for the Less Privileged (HELP), was chosen to lead Mayor David Dinkins’ Commission on Homelessness. A year later, the commission recommended sweeping, systemic changes to the city’s shelter system, including the introduction of rent subsidies to help people pay for housing and increased services for those struggling with addiction and mental illness. If you’re curious about the efficacy of such a model, just ask the men in blue jumpsuits at work around the city.

“The homeless problem says to each of us, ‘How do you believe we should treat one another?’” Cuomo said on Tuesday. “We as New Yorkers have to admit the truth. The problem is getting worse. It’s worse than it has been in years. It’s unacceptable. We will not tolerate it. It must change. We’re not leaving our brothers and sisters in the street to freeze.” So long as the emphasis is on shelter, however, and not housing, that is exactly what we are doing.