Early on the drizzly morning of October 2nd, 2015, NYPD officers and Parks Department employees in white hazmat suits rousted two small groups of homeless men and women asleep under an overhang at Choir Academy, a public school in East Harlem. The authorities told the group they were no longer welcome underneath the overhang, and began to toss their possessions into a waiting sanitation truck.
Surveillance footage acquired by the New York Civil Liberties Union (see below) shows the police and park workers destroying the group's possessions, and was grounds for a lawsuit against the city filed in December 2015. Today, the NYCLU announced that the city will provide compensation to three homeless men named in the suit. Floyd Parks, Timmy Hall and Jesus Morales lost birth certificates, social security cards, blood pressure medication, winter clothing and contact information for city shelters during the raid—as detailed in a 2015 Gothamist feature.
"Homeless people deserve to be treated with dignity like all New Yorkers, and the city acknowledged that it had no right to treat their few possessions like garbage," said NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman. "It's important that these three people were compensated, but some of the personal items they lost were worth far more to them than just their monetary value."
The NYPD initially claimed that Parks and his companions were told to take their personal belongings and leave the school property, and that everything "left behind" was thrown into Parks Department trucks. But in the surveillance footage, Parks employees are seen shining flashlights on men sleeping on the ground and dragging their possessions to the sanitation trucks.
Parks will receive $500, Hall $800, and Morales $215—the estimated value of their possessions. "Finally someone is listening, and thank God we have proof showing what has been done to us," Parks told Gothamist on Wednesday.
But Nikita Price, an organizer for Picture the Homeless (of which Parks, Hall and Morales are members), said the payouts amounted to an "insult." While the men's claims had initially called for additional compensation for "mental and emotional distress," this was excluded from the settlement.
"I would like to think that these cases would set a precedent," Price said. "Government officials, whether they are NYPD, or work for the city, can be held accountable for abusing people's rights. But the dollar amount, without sounding crass, is an insult. What you are saying is the targeting of these folks, frightening them, that's all it's worth. People have gotten more for stubbing their toes."
Asked to comment on the size of the settlement, the NYCLU said that these cases are often settled as soon as there is an offer—in part because, "Even if you prevail in a court case, you won’t see any money for a long time."
Norman Siegel, a civil rights attorney and former director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, outlined the group's rights in the aftermath of the raid. "If you're on private property the cops can tell you the owner doesn't want you here, and you have to leave," he explained. However, "If they threw out people's papers, [that's] destruction of private property. What they're supposed to do is take the property and voucher it, and let people pick it up later."
Destruction of property is one of several tactics that police officers use to discourage homeless men and women from congregating in public spaces, like sidewalks and parks. Last spring, the NYCLU filed a complaint against the city calling on the New York City Commission on Human Rights to investigate the NYPD's "move along" practice.
The complaint stresses that homeless New Yorkers have every right to sit, stand or sleep in public, so long as building entrances and pedestrian traffic are not obstructed. It was brought under the 2013 Community Safety Act, which prohibits profiling based on housing status, as well as age, gender, sexual orientation, immigration status, and disability.
NYCLU Staff Attorney Jordan Wells said Wednesday that the city should be focusing its efforts on steering the NYPD away from legally-dubious encounters with homeless New Yorkers.
"Rather than having to pay out individual claims like those of our clients, the city should move away from targeting and criminalizing the homeless," Wells said in a statement. "This incident underscores the need for the NYPD to implement consistent policies to ensure officers treat homeless residents with professional courtesy and respect."
Following the October 2015 raid, Parks and many of his companions started carrying cards that state their legal right to be in public so long as they are not blocking street traffic—part of a Siegel initiative to reduce NYPD arrests of street homeless.
"They still arrest us, tell us to move," Parks said Wednesday. "We stop on the corner and they'll say, 'Yo, you guys can't stand here. You gotta move, you gotta move, you gotta move, you gotta move.'"
In December 2015, with homelessness on the rise, Mayor de Blasio launched HOME-STAT—an initiative to canvass the homeless populations in Manhattan daily, increase homeless outreach staff, and up the number of police officers on the NYPD's homeless outreach unit. City Hall said at the time that the Choir Academy raid was unrelated to that initiative. "This incident involves individuals trespassing on school grounds. It is illegal for individuals to trespass and sleep on school grounds, and we will not tolerate it for security and safety reasons," said then-spokeswoman Karen Hinton after the lawsuit was filed.
However, she added, "we will review our protocols concerning the seizure and disposition of personal property."
City Hall deferred comment on today's announcement to the Commission on Human Rights; a spokesman for that office commented on the "move along" complaint, saying, "The NYC Commission on Human Rights continues to investigate this case."
Additional reporting by Erica Siudzinski.
[Update: 5:15 p.m.]: This piece has been updated with comment from a Picture the Homeless spokesperson.