Last Friday, February 26th, NYPD officers from the 94th Precinct along with the Department of Social Services conducted a sweep under the BQE. This sweep differed from past actions in its violence, says Benjamin Adam, the coordinator of NBK Essentials, a North Brooklyn Mutual Aid Initiative working to support the unhoused population. Sweeps, which the agency, the Department of Homeless Services, calls Clean Ups, force unhoused people to leave a location with all of their belongings in a short span of time. Despite CDC recommendations that discourage sweeps during the COVID-19 pandemic, the use of sweeps more than doubled in 2020, according to data from the Safety Net Project.
North Brooklyn Mutual Aid shared a report of the event on Instagram, describing its impact: “After an aggressive sweep our friend and neighbor Herbie was left with *nothing* but the clothes on his back, a pile of hand warmers that was dumped unceremoniously by an employee from Homeless Services, and a flashlight that had been given to him a month ago by our NBK Essentials team. It is now the only thing he owns in this world. Several other neighbors were forcibly displaced, told to move their tents and everything they owned by city employees backed by the police.”
Adam, who has been doing direct street outreach to houseless folks in the neighborhood for about six months, building relationships of trust and friendship, rushed to the scene. He was, “Shocked and dismayed to see that on Friday, the Police, DHS, and sanitation had done a violent sweep and stolen all of their belongings including tents, bikes that they use to take messenger gigs, things that support their survival.” The sweeps, Adam says, “Put houseless folks in danger.”
Sweeps are routine practice and Adam says they typically include more conversation with officials to clarify which items are the result of dumping, “Houseless folks are more than happy to help with sanitation practices that are reasonable and helpful to everyone,” Adam said. “In the past, during sanitation cleanups, houseless folks have pointed out furniture that they didn’t bring,” which can be removed by the officials without disruption.
City Council Candidate Elizabeth Adams, who in her work with current city council member Stephen Levin has worked on a many hearings addressing homelessness, agreed with this distinction. “It’s important to distinguish the sweeps that are happening of people’s belongings, we’ve seen people’s tents be thrown away, where they have set up their space. That is different from illegal dumping that’s happened in the area which is sanitation’s job to address. It’s important that we don’t conflate the two.”
Officers from the 94th Precinct carried out the sweep. Adam stressed the danger of the pandemic and the winter that houseless folks are facing, “during times of exacerbated racism and stress, houseless people are being scapegoated.” On Instagram, North Brooklyn Mutual Aid commented, “This is not what community safety looks like. And it’s something that is clear in this video that even the people enforcing this policy seem to be aware of, unable to look our neighbors in the eyes.”
Adams also stressed the role of trust in outreach work and praised the approach of NBK Essentials, “The crisis in homelessness is rooted in the crisis of affordability. We need to connect people to services that are effective and supportive and connect people to permanent housing options in an accessible way that works for them. That is what we have seen work in the council working with constituents.”
In her platform, Adams calls for police to not be involved in these actions and advocates a housing first policy with “safe, individualized options.” She explains, “ A lot of folks choose to stay on the street because of crowding in congregate shelters. People have that right. Sweeps are not what we should be doing, particularly at this time. It’s not the approach we should be taking, we need support, not displacement.”
DSS-DHS (Department of Social Services-Department of Homeless Services) spokesperson Ian Martin issued the following statement to Greenpointers: “In our City, we don’t allow obstructions of public places or encampments and anytime the City encounters, learns of, or receives a report about a condition on the street that needs to be addressed, the City addresses it as quickly as possible, with multiple City Agencies responding as appropriate. To that end, whenever DSNY or DOT or another partner Agency addresses a condition on the streets, we at DHS and our outreach partners are on hand, continuing to engage any individuals on-site, building on trust and relationships with those individuals, and outlining the range of services available to them, in order to encourage them to accept services and transition off the streets.”
Captain Kathleen E. Fahey, Commanding Officer, 94 Precinct released this statement to Greenpointers: “Houselessness is not a crime and should never be criminalized. When community concerns such as the presence of fires, vermin and refuse are voiced by identified members of the Greenpoint community, a duty is owed to address these concerns. The Homeless Encampment clean up which took place on Friday, February 26th under the BQE was not initiated by the 94 precinct. The officers were present at the request of DHS to ensure the safety of all. The community work that North Brooklyn Mutual Aid does is commendable and significantly contributes to the neighborhood.”
This article was updated on March 6th to include the statement from Captain Fahey.