311 complaints about homeless encampments help the city target them for sweeps, but also show their persistence
Since January 2021, New Yorkers have filed at least 37,907 complaints about homeless encampments. The city uses those complaints as a key tool to track the makeshift shelters and target them for clearing.
However, the complaint data themselves point to the intractability of the encampments as well as the difficulty facing Mayor Eric Adams as he attempts to sweep away tents and get their inhabitants into the city’s shelter system.
The data show thousands of complaints centering on the same locations, even during a period when the city conducted hundreds of encampment clearings each month.
Per internal city documents obtained by the Safety Net Project of the Urban Justice Center, the city conducted 4,859 sweeps from May 2021 through October 2021. That stretch, toward the end of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration, broke a years-long pattern of a hundred sweeps or fewer a month.
While callers phoned in that many total complaints, about a fourth were for locations within the subway, which Adams has also moved to sweep of unhoused New Yorkers.
In many cases, police officers or other city employees reporting to the sites did not find anything that comprised an encampment.
That left at least 12,007 apparent reports of actual encampments since the start of 2021, and 6,247 from that six month period in 2021 of increased sweeps.
Breaking down the complaints over the same period shows that even as the city took an extremely aggressive approach to sweeps, complaints of encampments specified the same places again and again.
Adams’ initiative has encountered the same problems. A particularly determined group of unhoused New Yorkers have had the city attempt to sweep their tents more than half a dozen times since Adams’ announcement.
They’re not alone in their determination to stick around. Around the city, reporters and advocates have documented homeless New Yorkers returning to or lingering near the same spots the city has swept.
That is in part because there are so few places to go, according to Eric Goldfischer, an academic who has studied encampments and related city policy.
New York has a limited number of overpasses and the other semi-sheltered, often ignored infrastructure that shelter tents elsewhere. “The encampments that have gotten the most press the last couple of years have been under the FDR and under the BQE,” Goldfischer said.
Complaints from 311 tell a similar story. Areas sheltered from the elements but still well within the heart of the city attracted particularly large numbers of complaints.
When NY City Lens spoke to a couple living under the Prospect Expressway overpass, they said they’d only been there for a few weeks, but complaints go back to the summer of 2021 and beyond, suggesting that the spot has long hosted unhoused New Yorkers.
Only five people have accepted shelter placements per Adams remarks at a press conference on March 30. According to the mayor’s office, that is the most recent figure available. Advocates argue that Adams’ program seems poised to repeat the same patterns as previous rounds of sweeps.
Asked at a press conference about how his initiative compared with his predecessor’s, Adams said, “I’m not sure what he did. That was the previous administration.”
According to Goldfischer, the sweeps risk forcing people further toward the margins, away from the eyes of their neighbors.
“If you think about all those spaces, they’re really on the edge of the city. Geographically on the edge and imagination-wise on the edge.”
Coalition for the Homeless, an advocacy organization, highlighted the same danger in their 2022 report.
“Policing and sweeps are harmful, counterproductive strategies that can actually push unsheltered homeless people further away from services,” wrote Policy Director Jacquelyn Simone. “Without offering homeless New Yorkers a better place to go, these are cruel public relations tactics that do not address the real problem.”