On the evening of October 1st, as the temperature dipped into the 50s and a steady rain began to fall, Floyd Parks and a few other homeless men and women sought shelter under the overhang at Choir Academy, a public school in East Harlem. The rain was still falling at 5:00 a.m., when the group was rousted by police and Parks Department employees in white hazmat suits. The authorities told them they were no longer welcome underneath the overhang, and began to toss their possessions into a waiting sanitation truck.
"They said 'Get up we're taking your carts,'" 61-year-old Parks wrote in his Civil Complaint Review Board report filed later that morning. A former ambulette driver from Long Island, he's been homeless for about five years. Speaking with us a few days after the incident he recalled, "There were some people they grabbed [items] from, tossed them around, skinned their knees."
"I grabbed my cart and was trying to get my stuff out, and the [officer]... just took my stuff and threw it in the [truck], and just crushed it up. And I said, 'Yo, I got personal property.' They said, 'Too bad.'"
Among the items the NYPD and Parks Department took from Parks, he says, were a few pairs of pants, some shirts, and medication he takes for high blood pressure, bronchitis, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. They also took his handwritten list of important phone numbers. "Numbers for organizations that can assist me with my homelessness and find me temporary shelter," Parks explained.
Choir Academy stands two blocks from the Metro North entrance at 125th Street and Park Avenue, an intersection that legislators and the media have recently deemed ground zero for two quality of life crises: street homelessness, and the sale and abuse of K2—an inexpensive mixture of potpourri and chemicals that, until recently, was sold freely behind the counter at neighborhood bodegas.
A blurry picture of the Oct. 2nd raid taken by Chyna, a 42-year-old woman who is not homeless, but spends many nights on the street in East Harlem with her self-described "family." Hazmat suits are discernible.
In mid-July, the Post described the intersection as a "gross spectacle... littered with layers of cardboard," and quoted a "filthy, toothless vagrant" who lived there. In early September, the same tabloid reported the rousting of East Harlem's "homeless horde"; and the NY Times recently quoted Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito calling the neighborhood the "epicenter" of the city's K2 problem.
Anthony "Sarge" Rainey, also 61, is a friend of Parks's. A Marine Corps veteran from the Bronx, he's been homeless since 1971, except for a brief stint in a VA apartment about a year ago. Rainey says that most of his possessions were taken that morning as well—everything but an electronic benefit transfer card and credit card that happened to be in his pocket.
Rainey lost his Veterans ID card, which he uses to ride public transportation free of charge and purchase clothing wholesale, plus family photographs, his birth certificate, hospital records, sweatshirts and jackets, and the CDs and chargers that he sells on the street.
The NYPD has since confirmed that officers from the 25th Precinct, as well as a number of Parks Department employees, "encountered" 10 homeless people sleeping at Choir Academy on the morning of October 2. A spokeswoman for the department said that school officials had recently filed complaints about unauthorized people on their premises.
According to the NYPD, the officers informed the group that they needed to vacate. They were told to take their personal belongings, and anything "left behind" was thrown into Parks Department trucks.
Norman Siegel, a civil rights attorney and former director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, has defended the rights of the homeless since the 1980s. "If you're on private property the cops can tell you the owner doesn't want you here, and you have to leave," he explained. However, "If they threw out people's papers, [that's] destruction of private property. What they're supposed to do is take the property and voucher it, and let people pick it up later."
Siegel cited a lawsuit he filed on behalf of Occupy Wall Street activists after the NYPD raided their Zuccotti Park encampment in November 2011. That night, Sanitation workers threw 3,600 books from the People's Library into dumpsters and garbage trucks, destroying more than half of them. Occupiers ultimately won a $50,000 lawsuit filed against the city for punitive damages.
Anthony Rainey with his EBT card and a credit card, the only personal items he says were spared when NYPD and Parks employees took his belongings on October 2nd (Jessica Leibowitz/Gothamist).
"It was a place I could say, yes: these are my friends, my associates, who I drink beers with, socialize with, stuff like that," said Parks, recalling the scene on 125th between Park and Lexington before the summer.
Carey King of the New Harlem East Merchant's Association (NHEMA) lives on 126th Street, and recalls things differently. "It was too trashy around here," she said. "People went other places to shop. I would come through here and that strip along Lexington would be filled with people in terrible states. It looked like some third-world scene."
Members of Picture the Homeless (PTH)—a nonprofit on 126th Street that provides local homeless men and women with legal and housing aid, a mailing address, and access to the internet—say that for the past month they've been receiving daily reports of NYPD officers telling groups of homeless people to move north of 126th Street, away from the blocks that received the most media attention this summer. They say many are threatened with trips to the hospital or psychiatric ward in handcuffs.
"It's like three or four times a day," said Parks. "[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."
According to Siegel, "The bottom line is it's not a crime to be seen standing or even sleeping on a public sidewalk, providing you're not blocking any entrances or exits to buildings and you're not blocking pedestrian traffic."
Nevertheless, many homeless men and women have moved to nearby Marcus Garvey Park during the day, and to sleeping spots on the surrounding blocks, including the Choir School, when the park closes at dusk. According to Parks's CCRB report, sleeping at the school had been tolerated by the NYPD in recent weeks.
Parks (far left) and friends on Park Avenue between 125th and 126th Streets last Tuesday (Jessica Leibowitz/Gothamist).
North-East Harlem is frequented by homeless adults and addicts in treatment, thanks to what members of the Harlem Neighborhood Block Association (HNBA) have deemed an "over-saturation of services."
There are three methadone clinics within a five block radius of East 125th and Lexington, and shelters on East 131st, 125th, and 132nd. The M35 bus that stops near the corner of 126th and Lexington is the only public transit that goes to and from four homeless shelters on Wards Island.
"Our premise has always been that East Harlem is disproportionately carrying the burden for the rest of the city," said HNBA leader Robert Perkins. For the past several months, his group has been lobbying for a moratorium on neighborhood homelessness and addiction services.
"Imagine you are taking your child to school and you are walking by the people that are lying [on the street], or pass the feces on your morning walk," said HNBA member Magda Tedder. "It's demoralizing."
In mid-April, Governor Cuomo and the Department of Health issued a warning about K2. Rolled and smoked like marijuana, the drug can cause seizures and hallucinations depending on its chemical makeup. This spring, the Department of Health delivered Commissioner's Orders to 34 East Harlem delis, ordering them to stop selling. A July raid of the neighborhood turned up 2,000 packets.
In the meantime, tabloids put pressure on Mayor de Blasio to make city-wide quality of life improvements. A map of 311 calls related to homeless encampments and individuals from January 1st to August 31st of this year shows that the number of complaints called in from East Harlem has more than tripled this year, from 42 to 144.
Initially resisting grand gestures, de Blasio changed tack on September 1. That day, he paid a highly-publicized visit to a notorious homeless encampment in the Bronx, and announced that it, in addition to 79 other homeless hotspots in the city—125th Street among them—would be systematically broken up.
"We don't accept encampments of homeless people in this city," the mayor said at the time. "It's not fair to anyone. It's not fair to our neighbors; it's not fair to the homeless. We're going to give people better options: Safe havens, homeless shelters, drug treatment, mental health services."
Of the $1 billion the mayor's office says it has invested in preventing and alleviating homelessness over the next four years, $84 million has been earmarked for the street homelessness specifically. In addition to more outreach workers to facilitate the move from street to shelter, the city is expanding the number of "safe haven" beds in the city—beds in churches for those who don't want to stay in traditional shelters. An additional 500 were announced last month.
Parks and Rainey say that for them, especially as they get older, the street is more appealing than a shelter.
"You go to this big stupid-ass shelter where you're scared to sleep," Rainey told us last week, standing under the Metro North overpass between 125th and 126th. "What do you do if you're an old-ass man going to a shelter... most of the times you get robbed. You wake up in the morning and you ain't got a dime."
NHEMA has welcomed the recent uptick in NYPD presence in their neighborhood, including this new 24/7 police van outside of the Pathmark at 125th and Lexington (via Facebook)
On September 2, officers ordered all of the homeless men and women in and around the 125th Street plaza to pack up and move, kicking off the routine of daily shuffling. Later that month, NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton announced a new dedicated task force for East Harlem, comprised of 38 "specially-trained" officers to address the sale and use of drugs, and the prevalence of street homelessness.
Hallia Baker, a spokeswoman for HNBA, has lived in East Harlem since 1969. She's seen Park Avenue under the Metro North overpass go through many changes—drugs and prostitution in the '70s, the sale of Brownstones for cheap in the '80s, and their revitalization in the '90s and 2000s.
"I think right now they're trying to keep them [the homeless] moving, but that's a Band-Aid," she said, adding that she hasn't witnessed any interactions between police and the homeless that she would deem "harassment."
"Since they cleaned it up and they added more lighting [at the 125th Street station entrance] there is less homeless in that area," Brown said. "And the police actually stand there when they are on patrol, so that is also a deterrent. But what starts happening is they go around to 126th Street, and they camp there."
Rainey finds the tactic offensive. "They don't want you seen by rich folks. That's what kills me. Why can't you be on 125th? Because they have rich folk on 125th now. Why all of a sudden I got to hide and duck and dodge?"
"Uptown Grand Central" last Thursday (Emma Whitford/Gothamist).
In July, NHEMA cleared and power-washed the Department of Transportation-owned block-length plaza underneath the 125th Street Metro-North Station, and rebranded it "Uptown Grand Central."
Colorful metal tables and folding chairs were set up where homeless people had recently socialized and slept with their possessions. Now NHEMA encourages neighbors to bring their lunches to the plaza on weekdays. There's free Zumba on Monday nights, a farmer's market on Wednesdays, and a regular schedule of live entertainment. A new mural, entitled "Harlem Sunrise," depicts red, blue and yellow sunbursts over a city skyline. A nearby sign explains that the motif signifies "hope for prosperity."
According to a PTH spokeswoman, the homeless have consistently been turned away by Metro North police who patrol the area. While the plaza is technically public, official DOT signage explicitly prohibits camping, lying down, storage of personal belongings, and "unreasonable obstruction."
A spokeswoman for the DOT explained that the 125th Street Plaza is part of an ongoing City effort to establish "quality open space" for residents and tourists, but would not comment on DOT policing.
Last Thursday, electric-violinist Lorenzo Larco shredded on "Sweet Home Alabama" over a turntable beat. With the new mural as his backdrop, Larco was NHEMA's main act for the evening, performing for commuters passing in and out of the plaza.
"Anybody can be here, you just can't be using drugs while you're here, or messing stuff up," said King, yelling over the music as she passed out flyers for an upcoming Zumba class. "People aren't allowed to sleep here anymore."
"Not only are the homeless not here, but it's cleaner, it's nicer, and people see that we're making an effort every day to make it clean," added NHEMA member Dionne Layne Morales. "It's somewhere that people want to be now."
Meanwhile, Parks, Rainey, and about 10 others sat talking in a row, along the chain link fence on Park Avenue between 126th and 127th. They were within earshot, if not sight, of Larco.
"They are trying to push us back off the main strip," Parks told us. "We're trying to say, 'We're here, we need help.' Why are you pushing us to the side? Give us some housing."
Additional reporting by Melique Williams.
Video by Jessica Leibowitz.