Some homeless New Yorkers say they would rather live on the streets than stay in a city shelter, even as Mayor Eric Adams launches a plan to involuntarily move homeless people suspected of having mental illness to hospitals.
Continuing his crackdown on street homelessness, Adams last month unveiled a plan to remove people who appear to have a mental illness from the streets, subways and other public spaces and take them to hospitals for psychiatric evaluations, even when they are not a threat to themselves or others. Such removals would hinge on whether the person “displays an inability to meet basic living needs.”
The latest initiative comes as the mayor pushes for a return to the relative normalcy of pre-pandemic times.
As Adams’ first year in City Hall comes to a close, his administration has rolled out three major initiatives to sweep visible homeless people off the streets. His aim is that doing so will woo back more tourists and office workers – some of whom have said in surveys that they don’t feel safe.
The mayor has also asked police and other city workers to stop people from lying down on the subways and to dismantle homeless encampments. The initiatives have been praised by business leaders, but met with fierce backlash from homeless advocates and some first responders who said Adams’ plans will likely further destabilize the people they claim to help.
As the mayor makes his latest push to move homeless people from public spaces, the city’s shelter system is seeing record-level of people in homeless shelters, contributed in part by an influx of thousands of asylum seekers arriving from mostly Latin America countries.
For some of the estimated 3,400 people who live on the street — a number some advocates say is a vast undercount — sleeping on sidewalks, parks and on the subway is far preferable to staying in a city shelter. Gothamist visited homeless encampments, parks and other public areas to talk to individuals about why they live where they do.
Here’s what four homeless New Yorkers had to say.
Their interviews have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Christopher Bray used to work as a metal sheet worker and has been living on the streets for about five or six years. The 32-year-old lived in a men’s shelter on Wards Island for several months, but now sleeps on the sidewalk in a makeshift shelter in Midtown with his girlfriend and two other friends.
Safety and security concerns are typically the top reasons cited by homeless people who avoid the shelters.
“Things would get stolen. People could pop your locker. It was a little hectic, you know, and that's when a lot of people were smoking the synthetic weed stuff. It was just crazy all around,” said Bray, sitting in a wheelchair on a Midtown sidewalk. “I had a knife pulled on me. I was robbed in there. I don't even know how they got a knife in there because they got to go through a metal detector.”
James Johns became homeless after he said a fire destroyed his home. Johns briefly lived at the Jack Ryan Residence, a homeless shelter for men in Chelsea. He said he’s been living on the street for about seven years.
“I don't need that much help, but I do need help, and it's so little bit of help I need, I can't get. I can't do that in dangerous places where people are clawing at me,” said Johns, criticizing city shelters.
“Everything is catered to you like a child. If you pay attention, you'll see the food is children's food, small portions,” said Johns, who was sitting on the steps of the Church of St. Francis Assisi near Penn Station. “It's like a disrespect in a certain way. It's like you're not treated like an adult.”
Celestin Tla immigrated to New York from Cameroon six years ago. In his home country, he worked as a marine engineer doing mechanic works on ships. In New York City, the 39-year-old earned a living as a ticket sales agent, selling city attractions to tourists. When the COVID-19 pandemic swept through New York City in the spring of 2020, effectively shutting down the city, he lost his job and eventually his apartment. Once in a while, he sleeps on his mother-in-law’s couch in the Bronx, but most of the time he said he usually sleeps in the subway.
“The shelter as it is today, all mixed in one room is, is, very degrading,” said Tla, sitting on a bench in Washington Square Park wrapped in a blanket. “I'm saying it's not dignified to make 50, 100 men live all in the same room. Even in prison, it's not like that. That's not — it's not decent. No.”
Tla argues that changing how homeless people are housed would make a marked difference in their outcomes.
“Making housing that is for the homeless, like making a building with rooms or maybe studios that are for the homeless. Like to give them another chance to, I don't know, have hope and maybe turn and be a different person and be maybe active and productive and productive for society.”
He added: “If you give a chance with dignity to somebody, he may feel that and definitely can turn out to be a good, a good something anyway. But mixing them all in one room, like 50, a hundred, in one room, for me, it is not a place to grow.”
Robert Andreas left a city shelter years ago after he said workers forced him to take painkillers that would help the arthritis in his knees. He had previously been addicted to painkillers and didn’t want to relapse.
“I didn't want to be there. I mean, there's just too much drama, you know,” said Andreas, 50, standing outside a Dunkin’ in Long Island City. “You got people that have mental illnesses that are there. You got people that just want to drink and fight, that’s all they want to do. People that just want to go out and get drugs.”
Andreas added: “You could have 50 people in one room, and I'm not good around a lot of people. I have PTSD. So I got anxiety.”
Clarification: This story has been updated to clarify the details of the Adams administration's new policies on taking people suspected of having mental illness to hospitals.