Police arrested two people who refused to leave an East Village homeless encampment Wednesday morning, including the same homeless activist who’d been arrested and detained for hours earlier this month.
Photos and videos of the arrests posted to social media showed several police officers pinning homeless activist John Grima up against a wall near 9th Street — still inside his tent — while he yelled "Please don't hurt me" before being carried away. Police confirmed two people were arrested but didn’t immediately have information on the charges they faced.
The East Village sweep was part of Mayor Eric Adams' ongoing efforts to clear the city of homeless encampments, which he has repeatedly argued is necessary for the dignity of homeless people. The sweeps, while not a new phenomenon under Adams, have drawn a drumbeat of criticism from homeless advocates, the City Council’s Progressive caucus, the New York Times editorial board, and a coalition of faith leaders.
Neighborhood resident Olympia Kazi said she was walking to get coffee around 8:30 a.m. when she stumbled across the scene. She saw dozens of police officers circling just two or three people at the encampment.
“It’s just violent and useless,” she said. She and several other residents tried to reason with an NYPD assistant chief who appeared to be overseeing the sweep, but he chastised them, telling them to get off their “talking points,” Kazi said.
She said the officer told her the nearby 9th Precinct had received 18 311 complaints for drug needles found in a nearby children's playground and he accused onlookers of not understanding the situation because they didn’t live in the area or have children.
“I live here,” she snapped back, “I have kids ... They don’t disturb us. I’m sad for what is happening to them. They are not the problem.”
Through April 6th, the NYPD said it had cleared 318 homeless encampments across the five boroughs. Police didn’t immediately provide updated numbers on how many encampments had been cleared.
Reached by telephone following the sweep, one encampment resident, Sinthia Vee, said she was frustrated at Grima's arrest and yet another sweep.
"It's very tiring," though she added it had been easier having several others living at the encampment to help her pack her belongings and move. "It was a lot more difficult by myself. Having some friends is better than not having some friends."
Vee was among the original group of homeless protesters who'd demanded access to permanent housing, not a safe haven or a shelter bed, during a seven-hour long standoff with police on April 6th when Grima and six others were first arrested. Since then, Vee said police had come to tell them to move four separate times.
“They’re wasting money on this when they could be using it to solve the problem,” she said. “I don’t want wrap-around services. I want an apartment I can afford to live in.”
Vee said she became homeless two years ago after losing her apartment in Gravesend and had been sleeping mostly on the streets and in the subways since.
"If you live from paycheck to paycheck this could happen to you with like one accident or really nasty illness," she said.
Through the end of March, two weeks into the mayor’s initiative, just five homeless people had come indoors through the sweeps, though hundreds more were displaced. The Adams administration has declined repeated requests to provide an updated count of how many people entered city shelters since then.
“We will do it at the appropriate time,” mayoral spokesperson Charles Lutvak said.
Though the precise scope of the Adams administration’s encampment clearing is still unclear based on the limited data available, it appears to be on par with the number of sweeps conducted under former Mayor Bill de Blasio, which had spiked up to about 150 a week in the last months of his administration, according to data obtained by the Urban Justice Center.
In the two weeks since the highly-publicized sweep in early April, members of the encampment had set up tents again at first around the corner on Avenue C, then up the block on East 10th Street, and finally back at the first location on East 9th Street under a scaffolding outside the derelict Charas school building that once housed a neighborhood community center.
Police officers, including members of Strategic Response Group, had returned several times to attempt to get them to move, including the morning of a citywide manhunt where Frank James, the alleged subway shooter, was apparently wandering around the neighborhood for hours.
On a recent afternoon several days after the first sweep Joe Hernandez, 71, had returned to the encampment with his wife, both of whom were sharing a tent. Hernandez said he hadn’t heard from any homeless outreach workers, but had seen many police, who’d asked him several times to pack up his things.
“I would take it in a heartbeat,” he said of shelter, if the city could find him and his wife a room of their own. He said he’d filled out some paperwork at the homeless intake center several weeks back but hadn’t heard anything. Since the first sweep, he said nothing had changed for him and his wife.
“Still the same, struggling,” he said. “We just do what we gotta do. Sleep in the streets.”
This story has been updated with additional comment.
Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled the name of Sinthia Vee