The following is an op-ed by Benjamin Adam, an organizer with North Brooklyn Essentials, reflecting on city-wide sweeps of housing encampments.
As many readers know, for more than a year North Brooklyn Essentials (an initiative of North Brooklyn Mutual Aid) has been facilitating communication between our homeless neighbors, Sanitation, and DHS in order to clean up unwanted trash underneath the BQE while making sure our neighbors are treated with the respect and dignity they deserve. Recently, Sanitation and the police led an aggressive sweep of the area, clearing away our homeless neighbors and leaving many with nowhere to go and nothing left. We were outraged and saddened by this unnecessary violence.
During each previous biweekly sweep, we introduced our homeless friends to local propertied neighbors, distributed food and other supplies they needed, and negotiated with Sanitation workers and supervisors about the size and location of tents and larger encampments. Our neighbors often assist with the cleanups, and many of the regular workers know them by name. A few have shared cash, cigarettes, or cups of coffee as they’ve worked together.
Part of our work has been to emphasize the humanity of our homeless friends. Our neighbor Robert likes reading science fiction. He’s been homeless for more than ten years, and has had an assigned caseworker from Breaking Ground for all the time we’ve known him. Our friend Mike has long roots in the neighborhood, and is a well-known member of the community under the BQE. Mike and his partner Parker were evicted from their homes during the last sweep. Across from Mike and Parker, our mediagenic and organized friend Herbie hung overdose reversal medication outside of his tent as a service to the community. As we documented on social media, Herbie lost the little he owned in a sweep last February, and then again this March.
Although homeless people have the same property and liberty rights as anyone else, they are often treated as a nuisance, and more than once our neighbors were forced under the threat of arrest to abandon their homes or relinquish property they couldn’t carry away. We’re grateful for the many Greenpointers who left our friends alone, or offered help when they could. These neighbors have helped our friends survive and thrive, and we’re proud of their neighborliness.
The truth is, homelessness can’t be reduced to the result of bad choices or character flaws. Instead, the experience is linked to both systemic problems such as unaffordable housing and the lack of an adequate safety net, and to the accumulation of risk factors including mental illness and drug use.
The overwhelming majority of homeless individuals and drug users are neither dangerous or violent. However, mental illness can make our homeless neighbors seem hostile or unpredictable, and drug use and behaviors associated with poverty can make our neighborhood feel disorderly or unsafe. To address these issues, we can maintain and improve access to public facilities, grow drug counseling and outreach programs, support welfare assistance and mutual aid, and encourage our neighbors to look out for one another.
Rather than helping homeless people, sweeps target them in the name of “law and order” by destroying their homes, trashing their property, and forcing them to pack up their belongings and move. Sweeps displace some of the most marginalized members of our society and move them further away from services that could provide help, and the neighborhoods they know. They often result in the loss of documents, medicine, and other items homeless people need, and they sever the connections required to build trust and provide meaningful assistance. Instead of sweeps, the city should provide housing where homeless people can access the services they need from experienced professionals.
Although our homeless friends are often blamed for the accumulation of trash under the BQE, the problem is largely the result of illegal dumping from vehicles and the many construction sites and industrial production facilities in the area. In addition, numerous cars have been abandoned there, alongside household appliances and furniture dumped by car and truck drivers. Film crews frequently leave set materials, perishable food, and other trash, and an autobody shop consistently uses the roadway underneath the BQE and the sidewalk alongside Meeker Avenue as its personal parking lot, blocking in cars and impeding pedestrians. In lieu of effective management by the city, our homeless neighbors have acted as stewards of the space, and have worked hard in between and during cleanups to collect and dispose of trash, sweep stagnant pools of water, and clear the sidewalks and roadways of debris. This has improved the area for everyone.
Despite its shortcomings, a lively community of neighbors makes use of the underpass to live, work, and play. Some neighbors collect and sort scrap metal and recycling. Others use the area to work on their cars or motorcycles, take their lunch breaks between driving gigs, or enjoy biking, walking, and skateboarding. Tour buses and other large vehicles use the roadway as a rest stop and parking lot, and our homeless neighbors seek refuge there.
As the weather gets warmer, and construction on the bike lanes and electric vehicle charging stations proceeds, we can expect even more activity under the BQE. To accommodate this increased traffic, the city should replace the public bathrooms removed during the pandemic, install trash receptacles along the sidewalk, and make regular trash pick ups. Instead of scapegoating our homeless neighbors or continuing to harm them with violent sweeps, Sanitation should work with them to make the area functional and enjoyable for everyone. Finally, Greenpoint should expand the services our neighbors need to survive and stay well including harm reduction and outreach services, food pantries, and more and better low-barrier shelter beds and private rooms.
Op-eds are submitted by community members and do not necessarily reflect the views or beliefs of Greenpointers staff. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for a chance to publish your opinion.