During a freezing Monday morning in Williamsburg, Department of Sanitation workers, in conjunction with officers from the 94th precinct, cleared out long-standing encampments used by unhoused people, located underneath the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.
The residents gathered up the belongings that they could carry and then watched as workers destroyed the rest. In an Instagram post, local group North Brooklyn Essentials estimated that about five to ten residents were affected by the sweep.
Benjamin Adam, an organizer with North Brooklyn Essentials, was present during the sweep, alongside other volunteers. NBK Essentials had put out a call the night before, as they knew of other sweeps that had occurred in the past week and wanted to be prepared.
“The day of the sweep was twenty degrees with strong, freezing wind, and it was horrifying to watch the police and Sanitation forcibly evict our neighbors while DHS looked on and Breaking Ground was nowhere to be found,” Adam told Greenpointers via email. “For more than a year, we’ve facilitated conversations and negotiations between our homeless neighbors and Sanitation. They knew the people whose homes they were destroying personally. Most lost everything and had nowhere to go.”
The action came shortly after Mayor Eric Adams announced through a brief interview with the New York Times on March 25 that his administration would direct city agencies to remove encampments across the city.
“We’re going to rid the encampments off our street and we’re going to place people in healthy living conditions with wraparound services,” Adams is quoted as saying, though it was noted that he did not offer further details about where unhoused individuals would go.
“The most recent official estimate, in January 2021, put the number of people living in parks and on the streets at around 1,100, which was widely seen as an undercount,” the New York Times reported.
Many unhoused neighbors opt-out of the shelter system for various reasons. Some have experienced violence while living there, or find the strict rules and curfews difficult to navigate. Being in the shelter system means that you have to go to wherever has an available bed, from the Bronx to Brooklyn, creating a feeling of instability.
“The simple common-sense fact is that destroying people’s homes could not possibly improve their welfare, and for most people living on the street, asking them to voluntarily enter the shelter system is akin to asking them to voluntarily enter a filthy, overcrowded prison. Most shelters have strict, patronizing and punitive rules, are far away from the communities homeless people know and the support those communities can provide,” said Adam. “Nothing Eric Adams has done has changed the fact that over and over and over again the shelter system is described by homeless people and advocates as inaccessible, dangerous, and overcrowded. Most of our friends under the BQE have been in the shelter system before and avoid it for these reasons.”
Already in his nascent mayoral term, Adams has made homelessness a key issue in his platform. He recently pushed to remove unhoused people sleeping and sheltering on the subway.
On March 29, a day after the sweep, Mayor Adams’ office announced in a press release the opening of a new Safe Haven facility in the Bronx, adding 80 beds, and that at least 350 of the previously announced 500 new beds would be made available this week.
Supporters of the Safe Haven model say that it affords more privacy and security, coupled with access to social services, but Safe Haven only represents a fraction of currently available shelter options, often filling up quickly on a night-to-night basis. Non-profit Breaking Ground plans to open a Safe Haven facility on Greenpoint’s own Apollo Street, which faced some pushback from community members.
Breaking Ground was unable to fulfill Greenpointers’ request for comment. Representatives from the Mayor’s office directed us to recent press releases.