After a long standoff, police officers swept an encampment maintained by unhoused activists, arresting seven people
By the time police put Johnny Grima in cuffs at 3:58 p.m. on Wednesday, he felt he’d made his point: he’d rather be on the street than in a shelter.
Police and sanitation workers had arrived around 9:00 a.m. to remove Grima and three others from a line of tents outside a long-vacant school building on East 9th street on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Grima, another resident of the tents and local activists there to support the pair spent the rest of the day in a standoff with the New York Police Department, demanding to be housed in apartments of their own—not in the shelters Grima despises.
The sweep was the highest profile episode yet in Mayor Eric Adams’ campaign to clear homeless encampments across the city.
Noting the presence of a dozen advocates and about as many journalists, police brought in backup and eventually closed off the street. A Department of Homeless Services staffer intermittently negotiated with Grima, offering sought-after shelter placements that afford more privacy and autonomy than typical DHS beds.
Grima, however, refused anything short of permanent housing, saying he preferred to stay on the street than go to a shelter.
When the authorities first demanded the tents come down Wednesday morning, Grima and two others staying in the row decried the sweeps and the shelter system.
During Wednesday’s standoff and in an interview the day before with NY City Lens, Grima grounded his refusal in three key points. First, that there are enough empty apartments in NYC to house all its homeless residents. Second, that it costs more to host someone in the shelter system, with all its attached services, than to simply pay for a person’s lease. And third, that shelter environments can be cruel and abusive.
“They’re a bad place to live. You could not seek help for substance abuse issues and mental health issues in an abuse environment,” Grima said Tuesday.
“They choose to do that instead of putting people into the vacant apartments that already exist.”
Last week, the city quietly swept away these tents along East 9th street where Grima and the others have been living for roughly three weeks. But with the help of local supporters, the tents soon returned.
Activist allies have helped make the encampment, which Grima has dubbed Anarchy Row, a focal point of opposition to the city’s policies on homelessness.
The dramatic scene that ensued Wednesday attracted far more attention than most of the hundreds of sweeps that have unfolded since Adams gave the longrunning city practice a new push on March 25.
The standoff brought out local Councilperson Carlina Rivera. Along with a majority of her colleagues, Rivera has called on Adams to end the sweeps.
As at least half a dozen TV cameras rolled on Wednesday, sanitation workers discarded the last of the unhoused group’s belongings. That marked a contrast from some other recent sweeps, after which homeless New Yorkers have been allowed to keep most possessions except their makeshift shelters.
Judith Haider, an activist and Manhattan resident, who’s been checking up on the row of tents, criticized the sweeps’ potential to push vulnerable New Yorkers further toward the margins.
“It’s literally sweeping a problem under the rug,” she said Tuesday. “It’s out of sight and for [Mayor Adams] out of mind.” On Wednesday, police arrested her alongside Grima.
This vein of housing activism and of confronting the authorities runs deep into the neighborhood’s past.
In the 1970s, local Puerto Rican activists and squatters turned the same abandoned school that was the site of Wednesday’s sweep into a center of neighborhood life called CHARAS/El Bohio. The building’s 22 year run as a community center ended in 2001 when a developer who bought the building evicted the community groups.
In the 1980s, the adjacent Tompkins Square Park became, in the proud phrase of some unhoused residents, “Tent City.” A hub for the unhoused, anarchists and drug dealers, the park took on a reputation for rowdiness.
In 1988, determined to enforce a curfew in the park, the NYPD ignited a riot when they charged hundreds of protestors. As they dodged police batons, one group of radicals dashed into Christodora House, the luxury apartment building next door to the abandoned school, screaming “die yuppie scum.” Earlier, the main group had carried a banner declaring “gentrification is class war.”
Sinthia Vee, another unhoused activist living in the row of tents, quoted this history to reporters and police on Wednesday. She invoked the legacy of CHARAS and urged that the authorities use the vacant building to house the homeless.
Although the police did not, in fact, sweep homeless peoples’ tents from the park that night in 1988, they did so the next summer, despite the opposition of activists on the scene.
At the time, an NYPD official from the local precinct said, “If they want, the homeless people can just come back later with blankets and sleeping bags. They just won’t have the structures.”
That approach has continued. Before things escalated to arrests on Wednesday, a police captain offered to let Grima and his companions keep everything but their tents.
But it also points to a key frustration about the sweeps. Joshua Goldfein of the Legal Aid Society wrote last week, in response to NY City Lens reporting, “If you force people to move and throw out their stuff without offering them a place to go, all you have done is made their lives worse.”
Advocates have also pointed out that sweeps seem mainly to shift people around on the streets, rather than bringing them into the shelter system.
Indeed, one unhoused New Yorker told the Times in 1989, “’We’re going to rebuild Tent City. Until they come up with a better alternative to city-run shelters, we’re going to stay.”
Joe Hernandez, who spent Wednesday afternoon watching from the sidelines after clearing out of his tent once police arrived, told a NY City Lens reporter that he’d probably spend the night in the park.
Asked whether he’d return to Anarchy Row if he could get another tent, Hernandez answered, “Of course.”