A coalition of homelessness advocates and homeless individuals gathered on the steps of City Hall on Monday to call for a “formal investigation and review into the NYPD’s policing and treatment of homeless New Yorkers.”
Members of the nonprofit organization Picture the Homeless gathered to publicize an open letter to NYPD Inspector General Philip Eure, which cites police orders for homeless people to vacate public spaces, as well as the confiscation and destruction of personal belongings, as grounds to open a formal inquiry. The letter, penned by the advocacy group Communities United for Police Reform, is co-signed by over 50 local and national advocacy groups, including the New York Civil Liberties Union, the Center for Constitutional Rights and the Legal Aid Society.
“Over the past two years and especially the past several months, a number of documented incidents and reports, together with pronouncements by top government officials, raise serious concerns about whether homeless people in the city are being targeted with abusive and discriminatory treatment by the NYPD – simply due to their housing status,” the letter states.
“Homeless New Yorkers are entitled to the same rights as any other resident of the city, but some accounts appear to indicate that police have participated in activity violating that notion,” the letter continues.
In particular, the letter references police action in East Harlem in which several homeless New Yorkers had personal property seized and discarded into a Department of Sanitation truck during a September raid. That incident, which was captured on video, is the subject of a notice of claim and could lead to a lawsuit against the city.
The letter also denounces the de Blasio administration’s public efforts to dismantle homeless encampments, “a policy and practice opposed by the U.S. Justice Department in a legal filing,” according to advocates. In his December announcement of the city’s retooled efforts to combat street homelessness – dubbed HOME-STAT to mirror NYPD’s longstanding CompStat system – Mayor Bill de Blasio touted the clearing of 30 homeless encampments, a line that garnered uneasy applause.
At Monday’s press gathering, advocates spoke out against the criminalization of street homelessness, which they say is forbidden by the Community Safety Act, as well as other federal and international laws.
“Being homeless is not a crime, but the NYPD’s targeting of homeless people for law enforcement action when they aren’t violating the law and destroying property – that is a crime,” said Nahal Zamani, an advocacy program manager at the Center for Constitutional Rights.
“Homeless people are entitled to be in public just like any other New Yorker. Homeless people should not be targeted for their presence based on the presumption of their housing status. The NYPD’s action on 125th Street and across this city clearly contravene a growing international consensus that criminalization of homelessness is a crime and it violates international laws, as well as domestic laws.”
James Doctor, a street homeless man, spoke out against NYPD action. (Photo: Jeff Stein)
James Doctor, a homeless man who says he was a victim of the NYPD’s action on 125th Street, described to New York Nonprofit Media racing back to his belongings and missing the destruction of his few personal possessions, including important identifying documents, by minutes.
“By the time I got there, they threw all of my property in the back of a garbage truck,” Doctor said. “A friend of mine was trying to tell them to give me time to come from two blocks away and retrieve my property. My birth certificate, my Social Security card, ID, everything of mine – my clothing – all personal items thrown in the garbage truck.”
After several months of hardship, Doctor said that he was still trying to replace those documents. He also said that the fiasco has underscored a belief that local government has stacked the deck against those who need help the most.
“You tell me I’m medically sick and I can’t work no more, but you don’t want to give me no benefits to help me take care of myself. But you don’t need no ID, nothing like that – all you do is run my fingerprints and I tell you my Social Security number and you know that’s the person to lock up,” Doctor said.
He also claimed that the relationship between the NYPD and the street homeless community has continued to deteriorate in light of recent events.
“I see it on the regular – I’m out there every day – how they look down on the homeless. We might as well be dog poop that you stepped in that you’re trying to scrape off of your shoe, because that’s how they look at us.”