Wilson Dizard

New York City homeless advocates rally against closure of urban campsites

Protesters characterize Mayor Bill de Blasio's campaign to push homeless residents into shelters as harassment

Advocates for homeless rights staged a rally and march on Wednesday in New York City, where protesters condemned Mayor Bill de Blasio for ordering urban campsites shut down and alleged that police were harassing the homeless.

Chanting “Homes not Jails” and “Housing not Shelters,” the group of about 50 protesters gathered near the corner of 125th St. and Park Ave. in East Harlem, where up until recently a homeless camp stood.

According to Picture the Homeless, the advocacy group that organized the event, the New York City Police Department (NYPD) dismantled the camp a few weeks ago, telling the camp's residents that they could sleep at a local shelter but would risk arrest if they returned. The move represented a new level of harassment against the homeless by the NYPD, the group said. "Cops have always messed with us, but in the past month it's gotten really bad," said a homeless veteran named Sarge in a statement released Wednesday by Picture the Homeless. 

Angel Stark, 29 and her boyfriend Jason Grimes, 35, attend a protest against homeless camp closures in New York City on Sept. 9, 2015.
Wilson Dizard

Mayor de Blasio’s office said the camp’s shutdown was part of a wider campaign tackling homelessness. “The de Blasio administration is focused on a constructive, long-term approach to reducing homelessness in New York City, and our teams are engaged in consistent and ongoing outreach to compassionately engage New Yorkers on our streets and bring them to services and shelter,” according to a statement sent by email to Al Jazeera.

Many of the city’s homeless refuse to sleep in shelters, which they say are often dirty and dangerous.

Angel Stark, 29, a legally blind homeless woman who attended Wednesday’s event, said that shelters are especially dangerous for disabled people, who are vulnerable to violence by other shelter residents.

“You got two guys on 125th that are in scooters that can’t walk, they’re disabled, but they choose not to go to the single adult shelter because if someone knocks them upside the head they can’t stand up and do it back,” Stark said.

“Like me, I’m blind. I don’t want to go to the shelter and you rob me and punch me in my face and I can’t do nothing about it,” she said.

Stark and her boyfriend, who’s also homeless, spend their nights on the steps of a local church.

In addition to dismantling campsites, the city’s campaign includes the increased presence of police officers and inspection of convenience stores for the illegal sale of K2, a synthetic marijuana popular among the homeless. Police say the drug causes erratic and dangerous behavior. 

Nikita Price, an organizer with Picture the Homeless, blamed East Harlem’s homelessness problem on rapid gentrification, as rising rents push people out of their homes. The average price of a two-bedroom apartment has increased from $2,200 to $2,500 a month in the last year, or about 14 percent, according to New York real estate trade publication The Real Deal

Price said the city should turn the area's empty buildings into low-income apartment complexes. 

Some advocates for the poor have proposed a "homeless bill of rights" that would prevent police from keeping the homeless from engaging in "life sustaining activities," such as sleeping in public areas. The Department of Justice recently weighed in on the question, supporting the view that homeless people have the right to sleep outdoors. 

Jean Rice, 76, who has slept on the streets but now lives in a subsidized apartment and survives on social security, says the city's crackdown on homeless camps is also a human rights issue. “The United Nations has declared sleep deprivation a form of torture,” he said. “When you see a homeless person waking someone out of their sleep, they’re torturing the homeless New Yorkers.”

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