Criminalizing the Homeless in Our Subways: New Mayor, Same Approach

Photo by Steve Rhodes

On January 6th, Governor Kathy Hochul and Mayor Eric Adams announced their joint strategy to address homelessness in New York City’s subway system: flood the system with hundreds of cops and dozens of state social workers — and call it “outreach.” Rather than fund better living conditions, truly affordable housing, and community services that make all New Yorkers safer, Hochul and Adams have chosen to further empower the NYPD — which has a long history of violence against homeless New Yorkers — without addressing the root causes of homelessness in our city.

The Governor and Mayor’s plan would require cops and “Safe Options Support” (SOS) teams of social workers and medical professionals to “sweep” the subway system and push homeless New Yorkers to seek refuge at crowded city shelters. “Omnipresence is the key,” said Mayor Adams, a former transit officer, at the press conference. “People feel the system is not safe because they don’t see officers.”

It remains unclear how the Mayor’s utopia of police “omnipresence” — a total police state — would solve the crisis of homelessness for our city. In 2021, former Mayor de Blasio added 750 officers to the already 2,500-strong gang of NYPD officers patrolling the subways, the “largest NYPD transit force in over 25 years,” a move that had little to no effect on safety or the number of homeless people taking shelter in the subway system. And as Governor Hochul pushes lawmakers to let the state eviction moratorium expire on January 15, potentially pushing more New Yorkers into the same state of homelessness she claims to combat, it’s clear that our elected leaders are protecting the profits of landlords and corporations — not the lives of their working class constituents.

To fix what Governor Hochul herself calls a massive humanitarian crisis, we must invest in safe, stable housing and enable dignified living conditions for every New Yorker — not more cops to harass our neighbors who have nowhere else to go. Homeless New Yorkers see the subway as the safest alternative to city shelters, which suffer from widespread violence, a lack of COVID protections, and gross mismanagement. “Some of us utilize the subway as a last resort because we know, if we do doze off for a bit, we may get robbed, but more times than not we won’t because there are always witnesses around,” said Denis Dugan, in an op-ed for New York Daily News. “Ultimately, I want what many people take for granted: a safe, private space, somewhere I can protect myself from coronavirus.”

As we’ve written before, adding cops to the subways does nothing to provide vulnerable New Yorkers with the specialized services and care that are proven to lead to community safety. More cops, in fact, exacerbate the risk of police brutality and misconduct. Recent examples of NYPD rioting and violence: officers beat an unhoused man in the West Village, ransacked tents at Tompkins Square Park as part of a “clean-up,” and assaulted an elderly man on a subway platform. NYPD officers themselves have admitted to blatantly targeting and criminalizing unhoused New Yorkers on the subway. At best, deploying more cops into our subway system forces unhoused New Yorkers to seek potentially unsafe shelter elsewhere; at worst, it leads to tremendous harm at the hands of the police. Neither outcome solves the very real crisis of homelessness — and both embolden the NYPD to attack and harass Black, brown, poor, and working class New Yorkers with near impunity.

As abolitionists, what are our alternatives? According to the Coalition for the Homeless, the primary cause of homelessness is the lack of affordable housing — with the immediate triggers of eviction, overcrowded housing, domestic violence, job loss, and hazardous housing conditions. In an analysis of the Housing First approach, simply providing housing without preconditions was shown to drastically reduce issues of both homelessness and substance abuse. Finally, the TransitCenter’s “Safety for All” report suggests that non-armed personnel, not necessarily police, create a sense of safety on mass transit systems.

It is imperative, as temperatures dip and Omicron cases spike in our city, that elected leaders enable safe and dignified living conditions for all New Yorkers. In solidarity with our unhoused neighbors, we demand that Mayor Adams and Governor Hochul immediately:

At the city level:

  • Implement an emergency plan to ensure that every unhoused New Yorker can move directly from their hotel room, the street, or other temporary living situation into permanent housing, if they want to.
  • House unhoused New Yorkers in existing affordable housing units.
  • Make CityFHEPS vouchers permanent for New Yorkers who receive them.
  • Terminate all transfers of unhoused New Yorkers back to congregate shelters, stop harmful sweeps by the police and other City agencies, and ensure that all unhoused people on the streets and in shelters have access to private hotel rooms where they can safely self-isolate and remain protected from COVID-19.

At the state level:

  • Prevent mass evictions and houselessness, push state representatives to cancel all rent, mortgage and utility payments accrued during COVID-19.
  • Extend the eviction moratorium and the Tenant Safe Harbor Act
  • Allocate $500 million to House Our Neighbors With Dignity Act (HONDA) to convert unused hotels into affordable housing
  • Establish a statewide Right to Remain by passing Good Cause (S3082)
  • Establish the Housing Access Voucher Program (HAVP)

What you can do

  • Protest to Shut Down the Eviction Machine: March on Billionaires Row, Wednesday 1/12 at 6pm, beginning at 57th and Broadway, and the March on Hochul’s office Friday 1/14 at 11 am, beginning at Bryant Park Steps
  • Support our comrades in the NYC-DSA Housing Working Group in the fight for the Right to Remain: Find events, meetings, and information here: https://linktr.ee/nycdsa_housing
  • Read more about our campaign’s vision for housing and our full defund policy plank at https://www.defundnypd.com/policy-plank
  • Join NYC-DSA NYCHA solidarity work to fight with NYCHA tenants to demand repairs and fully decommodified housing. Sign on here

About #DefundNYPD: #DefundNYPD is a campaign led by NYC-DSA, a local branch of the National Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). They are the largest leftist organization in the United States — and support the people’s demand to defund the police and abolish the prison industrial complex. DSA works collaboratively with labor unions and grassroots organizations to build a mass, multiracial, democratic abolitionist movement.

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Racial Justice Working Group is part of the NYC chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America. Follow us as we #DefundNYPD and refund the people.

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NYC-DSA Racial Justice Working Group

NYC-DSA Racial Justice Working Group

Racial Justice Working Group is part of the NYC chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America. Follow us as we #DefundNYPD and refund the people.