Housing Advocates Rally Outside City Hall Against City Effort to Clear Encampments

Mayor Eric Adams says he’s approaching the sweeps with compassion, but on Friday, protesters argued otherwise

Several attendees of the “Stop the Sweeps” rally outside City Hall stand with signs. The demonstration included organizers from VOCAL-NY, Picture the Homeless, the Urban Justice Center, and Housing Works. Many of those present were at one point homeless. New York, NY. Wednesday, March 30, 2022. Danielle Dawson for NY City Lens.

Advocates for homeless people gathered outside City Hall on Friday afternoon to call on Mayor Eric Adams to put an end to the encampment sweeps that are underway across the city.

Those present condemned the clean-ups, which began to ramp up this week as part of a larger effort by the mayor to tackle street homelessness. On cardboard signs held behind the speakers, the demonstrators equated the approach that has been marketed as one rooted in compassion and dignity to repeated violence against the city’s unhoused population.

“This is a policy failure,” organizer Celina Trowell said during the rally. “You have not been listening to what we have been saying.”

Advocates stressed that Adams’ undertaking has represented no real substantive shift in addressing the homelessness crisis.

New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, who was among the speakers at Friday’s rally, asserted that the Mayor’s approach of reaching out to those living in encampments is useless without having available infrastructure to meet the needs of those being put back into the system.

New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams speaks to the crowd of reporters. Williams, who is running for governor, was the only elected official present at the rally. “We’ve been dealing with the symptoms before trying to deal with the cause,” Williams said of Mayor Adams’ approach. “You did the last thing first.” New York, NY. Wednesday, March 30, 2022. Danielle Dawson for NY City Lens.

For him and the other advocates there, that infrastructure looks like shelter facilities that can offer single-occupancy bedrooms and greater access to affordable housing.

“We’ve been dealing with the symptoms before trying to deal with the cause,” Williams said at the rally Friday. “You did the last thing first.”

Safe Haven shelters, which Adams said would be offered to those impacted by the clearings, are regarded by housing policy experts as a better option than the traditional facilities for street homeless individuals, as they often have a low-barrier for entry, have more flexibility with rules, and are equipped with hands-on services on site to support the mental and physical needs of chronically street homeless individuals. 

Advocates at the rally, however, said that the Safe Haven shelters are not any different despite these benefits, as many still have beds set up in a dormitory-like way.

“Sleeping in a room with 18 people or so, you have to worry about someone standing over you,” Sarah Wilson, an advocate with the Safety Net Project of the Urban Justice Center and VOCAL New York, said during the rally. “Stabilization beds, those are what we need…independent rooms.”

In a press conference Wednesday, Adams said that the city had cleared 239 of the 244 encampment sites identified. Of those sweeps, only five residents had accepted and been brought to shelter, which he attributed to deeply rooted mistrust in the system and unfamiliarity with sites such as Safe Havens. 

NY City Lens reported yesterday that some New Yorkers that have been subjected to the clearing of their shelters have not been revisited by outreach workers despite expressing interest in a Safe Haven placement, waiting hours after their makeshift shelters were torn down and discarded.

“They threw everything, all our stuff, they threw in the garbage,” Angel, a street-homeless New Yorker living in an encampment, said Wednesday. “And then what happened? Look, we’re still waiting here.”

Approximately 2,376 unhoused New Yorkers live outside the shelter system, according to the last official census. For many unhoused New Yorkers that opt for the streets, this is a conscious decision made due to fears of and experience with poor shelter conditions, including frequent mistreatment, theft and violence.

Celina Trowell stands with her fist in the air as an act of solidarity. “We are homeless, not helpless.” New York, NY. Wednesday, March 30, 2022. Danielle Dawson for NY City Lens.

“There is safety and dignity in privacy,” Trowell said on Friday. “Why should someone be forced to work out their mess in front of someone else working out their mess?”

While the rally focused heavily on the issue of congregate shelter conditions, many of the speakers reiterated the point that they should only be a temporary solution to the homelessness crisis. Stable housing, they argued, would create permanent fix.

“We got a right to shelter, but it’s your job [Mayor Adams] to ensure this becomes a right to housing,” Trowell said.