Police arrested six activists and a homeless man following a more than seven-hour standoff Wednesday, where the group refused to leave an encampment of four tents set up under a sidewalk shed on East 9th Street in the East Village.
The standoff, in which the homeless protesters demanded placement in actual housing rather than a shelter or a transitional bed, was the latest flashpoint over Mayor Eric Adams’ controversial push to clear the city of homeless encampments.
Police spent hours attempting to coax those gathered to leave voluntarily. When it became clear they would not, they called in reinforcements from the Strategic Response Group and around a dozen more community affairs officers, who cleared the sidewalk and threatened anyone who remained with arrest if they refused to leave.
Eventually they moved in, putting six activists in zip ties, until it was just down to 37-year-old John Grima, the leader of the protest, who refused to leave his tent.
He said he’d been homeless and in and out of shelters and safe havens with too many bad experiences to count.
“Homeless shelters and safe havens are abusive environments,” he said. “How do you expect people to get help for their mental health issues and their substance abuse issues in an abusive and toxic environment?”
Police collapsed Grima’s tent around him and several officers piled on top of him, placing him in zip ties. All the while he chanted, “I want apartments for all my homeless people.”
The arrests were the culmination of hours of back and forth between police officers and sanitation workers, one homeless outreach worker and a handful of homeless people and about a dozen activists who had come to their aid.
“This is where we make our stand. We’re tired of this crap,” said Sinthia Vee, who said she’d been living on the streets for several years. “I’m not spending three years getting staph infections in another shelter, waiting while everyone says they won’t rent to me. It’s not going to happen.”
One outreach worker at the scene asked Vee what it would take for her to get her off the street.
“An apartment,” she replied, emphatically. “We don’t need any more of these f--king rich people high rises in the sky. We don’t need tenement crap holes. We need housing.”
The protesters set up camp last week under a sidewalk shed outside Charas, the derelict public school building that used to house a beloved community center. Police and sanitation workers first arrived unannounced on March 31st.
An elderly man, Kevin Parker, who uses a walker and has limited mobility, was the only member of the encampment around at the time and had struggled to salvage people’s belongings. Sanitation workers had thrown the rest away, several residents said. But within a matter of hours, the group reestablished their camp in the same spot, with the help of donations of tents and blankets from local activists and mutual aid groups.
Over the course of several days, activists had encased the green construction shed signs behind the tents with signs citing city data that shows the cost of housing a homeless person in a city shelter is more than $3,500 per month. A different sign said that while there are 91,000 homeless people across New York State New York, there are more than 240,000 vacant apartments in New York City alone, according to the most recent data available.
Sanitation Workers returned on Wednesday morning for a second time at around 9 a.m., and were soon trailed by several police cars and around 15 officers, who blocked off the East 9th Street and pressed in on the encampment attempting to negotiate and get the protesters to pack up their belongings. As the hours went by, more and more city workers were called in and the NYPD set up a police line to block off the street. Confused and curious passersby came to watch the spectacle.
Helen Strom, with the Safety Net Project of the Urban Justice Center, observed much the confrontation over the course of the day.
“I just watched probably $100,000 be spent to violently arrest a homeless person who needs an apartment and is just trying to survive in a tent,” Strom said. “There’s no concern with actually helping people or thinking folks who are homeless as people, the only concern is sweeping people out of site.”
Adams is not the first New York City mayor to push sweeps of homeless encampments. Data obtained from the Safety Net Project of the Urban Justice Center showed former Mayor Bill de Blasio had ramped up the practice with more than 100 sweeps per week in his final months in office.
Last week, Adams said city workers had removed 239 encampments. At that time, the city said just five people had accepted some form of shelter the city offered.
Police said Wednesday the city had cleared 318 encampments, but the mayor’s office didn’t immediately provide an updated estimate of how many New Yorkers had accessed housing through the city’s homeless encampment sweeps. Speaking on CBS Wednesday morning, Adams continued to defend the encampment sweeps, and again touted a brochure his administration had made meant to entice people into safe havens and stabilization beds, both alternatives to traditional group shelters.
“We're going to continue to lean into making sure that we remove the encampments off our streets, but at the same time, make sure that we give people proper services,” he said.