As Mayor Eric Adams ratchets up his administration's approach to tackling street homelessness, city data shows that only about 5% of the homeless people caught up in the mayor's encampment sweeps entered the shelter system as a result.
According to statistics from the mayor's office, city employees cleared 3,198 homeless encampments – or 14 sites a day – from public spaces between March 18 and the end of October, which also includes multiple sweeps of the same locations. Of the 2,098 people residing in homeless encampments that teams of city workers engaged with, just 115 agreed to enter the shelter system, according to the mayor’s office.
“For months, outreach teams have engaged constantly with New Yorkers living on the streets to offer them a clean, safe place to rest and the dignity that comes with it," said Charles Lutvak, a spokesman for Adams. "Mayor Adams has said since day one of this effort that we would do the work necessary to build trust and help people accept support, and that’s exactly what the administration is doing. The facts are clear that this administration’s approach is working.”
The latest city stats offer a glimpse into the Adams administration’s tactics to tackle the rise in homelessness that has befallen the mayor during his first year in office. On Tuesday, Adams ramped up his approach, announcing that the city will involuntarily hospitalize people suffering from mental illness even if they pose no overt threat to themselves or others.
The business community is lauding Adams’ approach as the city gradually returns from pandemic lows in employment and tourism. But homeless advocates have blasted the mayor’s encampment sweeps since they began in the spring, saying they only chase people from one location to another and don't address the underlying problems that cause homelessness.
“Sweeps are traumatizing and downright violent. The thousands of sweeps that the city has conducted are horrific and are part and parcel of the city’s war on poor and homeless New Yorkers,” said Karim Walker, an organizer and outreach worker at the Safety Net Project of the Urban Justice Center.
“We know what it takes to address homelessness – stable housing – and we know that we have enough empty housing stock for all homeless New Yorkers. The fact that the city knows this and continues to conduct these sweeps is deplorable and is little more than political theater," Walker added.
City data obtained by the Safety Net Project through a Freedom of Information Act request shows that teams of workers – which, at a minimum, include the police, sanitation workers and social workers – target the same encampments repeatedly. In Midtown, city officials have attempted to shut down one encampment as many as 97 times in a span of six months.
New York City has seen a surge in homelessness even before thousands of migrants overwhelmed the city’s already-burdened shelter system. As of Monday, there were more than 64,000 people living in shelters managed by the city’s Department of Social Services and thousands more staying in shelters managed by other city agencies — enough to fill Yankee Stadium, which holds 52,325 fans, with tens of thousands left over.
The city’s annual census of homeless people living on the streets — which advocates contend is a significant undercount — found that 3,439 people were living on the streets and in the subways last winter.
Adams, who has repeatedly defended his encampment policy, did so again on Tuesday.
“Sitting in those tents, in those encampments, seeing human waste, stale food, dirty clothing, people who are dealing with mental health crises, and then we have the audacity to say that they should live that way? I'm just not going to do that,” Adams said at a news conference in City Hall. “And I know some people may look at what we are doing saying that we are trying to do something to take away the rights of people. No, we're not. The right is that people should be able to live in dignity.”
As his first year in office comes to a close, the Democratic mayor has tried to deal with persistent problems that touch on public safety and individual liberty as the city emerges from the pandemic.
The mayor has made public safety and crime a core of his early mayoralty to ease fears from residents, office workers and tourists who power New York City’s economic engine.
The mayor’s office contends that the 115 people who entered the shelter system as a result of the encampment sweeps is quadruple that of Adams' predecessor, former Mayor Bill de Blasio.
Despite the low number of people living on the streets who have agreed to go into shelters, restaurant owners and businesses are glad to see Adams taking aggressive actions to address street homelessness, particularly homeless people with mental illnesses.
Kathryn Wylde, president and CEO of the Partnership for New York City, an influential group that represents big businesses such as major banks, law firms and media companies, said if Adams did nothing to deter homeless individuals from setting up makeshift shelters on city streets, there would be more encampments across Manhattan and the outer boroughs.
“I think the mayor's commitment to discourage encampments has kept New York from looking like one of the West Coast cities,” Wylde said.
In a survey, employees of businesses that are members of the Partnership – including Bank of America, BlackRock, Facebook and PepsiCo – said homeless people who suffer from mental illnesses are a greater source of anxiety for their safety than violent crimes, according to Wylde.
“They really see those conditions of homelessness and mental illness – I think in part because they're so random – as a greater threat to themselves and the city,” said Wylde.
But advocates say people experiencing homelessness are more likely to be victims of crimes than perpetrators, and those living on public streets are especially vulnerable. According to city data, 22 homeless New Yorkers were killed in the 2021 fiscal year.
Andrew Rigie, executive director of the New York City Hospitality Alliance, an association representing restaurants and nightlife venues, said it’s been less than a year into the Adams administration and more time is needed to solve a complicated problem. He commended the Adams administration for holding ongoing conversations with local businesses and determining what works and what may need to be adjusted.
At the end of the day, Rigie says success means homeless people are sheltered, receive needed services and no longer live on public streets.
“Success would be that they don't continue to return,” he said.
This story has been updated to include comment from the Adams administration.