Police officers order homeless men and women to "move along" from city parks and sidewalks on a daily basis, in violation of a city law that prohibits profiling based on housing status, according to a complaint filed today against the city by the New York Civil Liberties Union on behalf of the advocacy group Picture The Homeless.
"They're always telling us to move down the block," said Jazmin Berges, 32, a formerly-homeless PTH organizer. "It's different when you're a person in a three piece suit and you're sitting in a park. If there's a group nearby with carts and handbags, they're targeted."
"When you speak up and say it's public space, they ask for your ID," Berges added. "And if you don't have an ID you get locked up."
When a traditional arrest can't be justified, many homeless men and women say they are threatened with trips to a hospital or psychiatric ward in handcuffs. The NYPD has also been known to confiscate and crush personal property.
The "move along" phenomenon is particularly acute in East Harlem, especially near a block-length plaza underneath the 125th Street Metro-North Station—a long-time gathering place for the homeless that was recently power-washed, rebranded and filled with community programs. At the height of the NYPD's homelessness crackdown last year, homeless men and women in the neighborhood described being shifted constantly from corner to corner.
"It's like three or four times a day," Floyd Parks, a 61-year-old homeless man, told us in October. "[An officer] will just come along and say, 'No, you can't stay there,' another cop will come along and say, 'No I don't want you all over there, I want you all over here.' We're just being shuffled."
"There’s a tie between gentrification and police harassment," said NYCLU attorney Alexis Karteron on Thursday. "People who have lived in the area for years are suddenly subject to this harassment and being told constantly that they have to move."
— CPR Change the NYPD (@changethenypd) May 26, 2016
Today's complaint calls on the New York City Commission on Human Rights to investigate the NYPD's "move along" practice, and 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's the first major action brought under the Community Safety Act, a 2013 set of laws that gave New Yorkers legal recourse at the height of then-NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly's stop-and-frisk approach to policing.
"Move along orders disrupt street communities for homeless people, which are close-knit, family-like networks of support for many who don’t feel safe in shelters," said NYCLU Director Donna Lieberman on Thursday. "They force homeless people to leave the small amount of space they feel at home in and make it hard for outreach and social workers to find them."
Explicitly prohibiting profiling based on housing status—as well as age, gender, sexual orientation, immigration status, and disability—the Community Safety Act also empowers New Yorkers to sue the NYPD for individual acts of bias, as well as overarching policies that disproportionately impact people who fall into any of the protected categories.
"The Community Safety Act was designed to combat police practices of this kind that don't keep anyone safe but attack the dignity of New Yorkers," Karteron said. "In East Harlem it's clear that that's exactly what's been going on."
Advocates pointed out on Thursday that Mayor de Blasio endorsed the Community Safety Act during his mayoral run, pitting himself against opponent Christine Quinn. "I think we need that bill as another step toward healing and strengthening the relationship between police and community," he said during a 2013 debate.
"The city respects the rights of our homeless New Yorkers and has put in place a new comprehensive plan to reduce homelessness," said Mayoral spokeswoman Monica Klein in a statement Thursday. "When we receive the complaint we will review it."
CCHR spokesman Seth Hoy stated, "The NYC Commission on Human Rights does not comment on complaints or open investigations."
Additional reporting by Jordan Simon.