the unhoused

A 24-Hour Manhunt and a Fleeting Sense of Safety for Unhoused New Yorkers

Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Shortly before the arrest of a suspect in the shooting of at least five unhoused men sleeping on the streets of New York and Washington, Eric Adams, in a joint statement with D.C. mayor Muriel Bowser, said it was “heartbreaking and tragic to know that in addition to all the dangers that unsheltered residents face, we now have a cold-blooded killer on the loose.” He urged people to get off the street — to safety. It was an inversion of his usual rhetoric, in which people seeking shelter in New York are framed as a source of danger rather than potential victims.

Speaking to reporters on Monday, the mayor said his policy of subway sweeps — sending teams of police and social workers to remove people sleeping in the subway — would remain in place. “There is nothing dignified about living on the subway tracks,” Adams said. “He said he would not respond to insinuation that the policy ‘would contribute to the sick mind of a shooter,’” City Limits’ David Brand reported at the time.

Although the mayor has emphasized that his plan includes resources to move people into shelters, some of those unhoused people avoid the city’s shelter system for good reason: They feel less safe there than they do sleeping outside or on the subway. In February, after the mayor’s plan went into effect, an unhoused resident, John Timpa, told WABC about his experience being asked by police to leave the train. “They just kept telling me to get out, get out, get out. ‘Go outside.’ Yeah, go outside,” he said. “I told them I got nowhere to go.” Timpa later said he got right back on the subway after the police left because he didn’t have a better option.

During the pandemic, the city had increased the number of unhoused New Yorkers with access to hotel rooms, but it has wound down the program in recent months, sending thousands of residents back to congregate shelters where many people share the same space. A group of advocates, including VOCAL-NY and Housing Works, sent a letter to Adams on Monday urging him to reopen the hotel rooms to unsheltered New Yorkers. “Now is the time to use the tools we have to save lives,” the letter read.

Congregate shelters saw a surge in COVID-19 cases during the latest Omicron wave, which is one reason some unsheltered New Yorkers say they avoid them. “People are going to go back to the street rather than go back to congregate shelter,” Helen Strom, a legal advocate with the Safety Net Project, told The City this summer. “That is how bad that environment is for people.”

And, as City Limits pointed out, the city’s preliminary budget falls $61 million short of what’s needed when it comes to funds needed for single-adult shelter costs, according to a report from the New York City Independent Budget Office.

The dissonance between the mayor’s policies on unhoused New Yorkers and his rhetoric about their safety in recent days hasn’t been lost on advocates or the unsheltered homeless. (In touting his subway plan in February, Adams called the problem of homelessness “a cancerous sore.”) Jacquelyn Simone, policy director of Coalition for the Homeless, noted in response to the shootings that “the dehumanization of our neighbors without homes is on the rise, which certainly fuels these attacks.” The number of unhoused people being murdered in the city has only risen over the past few years. As Adams and the NYPD celebrated the arrest, it’s worth asking this: What were they doing to keep New York’s unhoused residents safe to begin with?

Unhoused New Yorkers Deserve Lasting Safety