Heriberto Medina watched the compactor of a city garbage truck swallow up the tent he’d taken shelter in for months under the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.
Police and sanitation workers on Monday had given him a chance to pack it up, but he said he was too tired to dismantle his camp. When the debris was cleared, he was left with a bicycle, two backpacks stuffed with clothes, and a small white stool.
“So now my living space is gone,” he said. “There’s no other options, but to look for another place.”
Mayor Eric Adams has promised to crack down on street homelessness by clearing 150 encampments across the city over a two-week period. It follows a plan last month to remove homeless people from the city subways. Fabien Levy, a spokesperson for the mayor, said the first warnings went up on March 17th and the first encampments were cleared a day later. Levy called it a multi-agency effort with the NYPD and the Departments of Social Services, Sanitation and Parks.
“This effort is about taking care of our people and our public spaces because no New Yorker deserves to live on the street,” Adams said in a statement.
Medina’s camp under the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway in Williamsburg was one of them. Over the past two years, a handful of people had started sheltering there, neighbors and residents said. Last week, two groups of people were cleared from under the highway. Police came back on Friday warning the remaining residents to clear out. On Monday, they arrived to finish the job.
“The mayor says the crime rate is going up. Let’s target the homeless again, like they usually do. They always target the homeless. The homeless, the homeless,” Medina said. “Every day the homeless, the homeless, the homeless and instead of helping us they kick us while we’re already down.”
One homeless outreach worker was at the site of the sweep alongside a half of a dozen police and sanitation workers. The woman said she’d be able to offer single rooms to the people whose belongings were cleared, but left before anything had come through. By that evening, Medina said she’d gotten back in touch to say she’d found him a room in Manhattan and he was waiting for a ride there. He said he felt optimistic he might have a bed to sleep in that night.
“I’m satisfied for right now,” he said, in a follow up phone call.
Like others in the encampment who spoke with Gothamist, Medina said he'd sworn off the city's congregate shelters after getting robbed and attacked in one in 2018. It wasn't immediately clear what happened to other people who’d had their belongings cleared from under the highway.
Parker Wolf, 22, who’d been living under the highway with his boyfriend for nearly two years said he had no plans to go into a city shelter because he didn’t want to be separated from his partner. The pair planned to stay outside Monday night with the remainder of the blankets they’d salvaged.
“Making us move doesn’t make less homeless people,” he said. “We’re gonna be in a different place.”
Clearing homeless encampments is not a new tactic. The city conducted 6,604 sweeps during the last year of the de Blasio administration, according to data obtained through Freedom of Information requests from the Safety Net Project of the Urban Justice Center. The sweeps occurred even as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned clearing encampments could “cause people to disperse throughout the community and break connections with service providers [which] increases the potential for infectious disease spread.”
In Adams’ first month in office city agencies conducted 134 sweeps, according to data shared by the Safety Net Project, a drop from prior months, the most recent data available.
In January the city had 1,207 safe haven and 687 stabilization beds where homeless New Yorkers were staying. Those are two forms of shelter some people living on the street are more likely to accept, rather than beds in a traditional congregate shelter, advocates say. It’s not clear if the city has increased the number of these types of beds as it’s amped up efforts to break up encampments. The mayor’s office didn’t immediately respond to inquiries on the issue. An estimated 2,400 people live on city streets and in subways, according to an annual tally taken in January of 2021.
Meanwhile homeless advocates warned encampment sweeps without a boost in safe haven and stabilization beds just put the city’s most vulnerable residents at even greater risk.
“Street sweeps are anything but compassionate,” said Karim Walker with Human.NYC. “We call on Mayor Adams to address homelessness with housing, not sweeps and criminalization. In the meantime the city should be providing people with basic necessities, not throwing them away.”
Correction: A previous version of this story used the incorrect pronouns to refer to Parker Wolf. It has been updated.