Real Estate Backs Eric Adams’ Plan to Relocate Homeless
The plan’s similar to Bill de Blasio’s, which failed to significantly dent homelessness and which activists say eroded trust in city workers
New York City officials in the second half of March relocated 239 temporary camps made by some of the city’s unhoused residents — an effort welcomed by the real estate industry and the wider business community, but one that advocates said the city had tried and failed before.
The campaign to drive unhoused New Yorkers into the city’s shelter system is nothing new — former Mayor Bill de Blasio enacted a similar plan to remove encampments at the end of his administration — but with COVID-19 cases rising again and the high-profile shootings of at least five unhoused citizens in New York and Washington, D.C., in the first two weeks of March, all eyes are on Mayor Eric Adams as his nascent administration attempts to tackle the issue. As of the end of March, only five people from the 239 sites cleared had been relocated to shelters.
More than 45,000 people in New York City were unhoused and living in the city’s shelters as of March 31 — among them over 14,500 children, according to data from the Department of Homeless Services (DHS). But a more visible, and less calculable, population lives on the city’s streets and in the subway system. Adams has tried to prevent unhoused people from sleeping or sheltering on trains — without a clear plan of where to relocate them — and has taken a similar approach to encampments.
His response has been welcomed by the business community. Kathryn Wylde, the president and CEO of the Partnership for New York City, said her staff has heard complaints about unhoused residents using drugs in public and harassing workers, and that homelessness is an issue the city must fix if it wants its workers back in the office — or to stay in the city at all.
“We absolutely support the mayor’s efforts,” Wylde said. “He’s also calling for housing solutions. … That takes longer to provide, but I think he has a balanced approach to eliminating conditions that are causing anxiety for the broader public.”
Real Estate Board of New York President James Whelan, too, praised Adams, calling his commitment to the issues, “encouraging” in a statement to Commercial Observer.
Wylde cited the Partnership’s recent poll, which found that safety, homelessness and mental illness are some of the top reasons private sector employees are resisting a return to office and using public transit. Homelessness, poll participants said, was also the second most important issue the city should address on its public transit system, next to safety.
The city’s major property owners have echoed such concerns.
The presence of unhoused people has elicited complaints from tenants at Durst Organization buildings about safety, and that encampments can represent fire hazards, said Jordan Barowitz, vice president of public affairs for Durst. An encampment near a Durst building under the West Side Highway caught fire 18 months ago, and, thankfully, no one was hurt, Barowitz said.
“People are more concerned about their safety getting to and from work than they are about catching COVID-19,” Barowitz said. “When there’s a dearth of people on the street, negative uses stand out and people feel less comfortable.”
Unhoused people, though, are more often the victims of crime than the perpetrators of it, said Danny Pearlstein, the policy and communications director at Riders Alliance, a nonprofit dedicated to improving public transit in the city. The number of unhoused people killed in the city has risen 300 percent since 2018, Gothamist reported.
“[Unhoused people] became an outlet for political opportunists,” said Pearlstein. “One reason why the issue of transit homelessness has reached such a fever pitch is that everyone’s looking for someone to blame. But the problem with blaming some of the most vulnerable people is that it puts them in immediate physical danger.”
For Jeff Gural, president of GFP Real Estate, complaints from office tenants about unhoused people haven’t been an issue, after a handful in January 2021. He praised Adams’ response — adding that he thought morale in the New York Police Department (NYPD), one of the three organizations charged with removing the encampments, would be higher under Adams than under de Blasio.
“I think the [mayor] understands the problem,” said Gural. “Nobody should be in a cardboard box on the street. … And I think it emphasizes how important it is that we provide other resources because nobody wants to see somebody sleeping on the street in a cardboard box. It sends the wrong message about our city.”
Adams’ plans for the encampments and the subway have been tried before. De Blasio announced a plan in April 2020 to close 10 end-of-line stations from midnight until 5 a.m. for cleaning, as he cut $1 billion from a program to build affordable housing. While de Blasio left office with about 50,000 or so residents in the shelter system, compared to between 60,000 and 70,000 in 2015, after he took office, his efforts for those in subway trains and on the streets were less fruitful.
In 2014, the city estimated that 3,537 people lived on the streets or trains, rising to 3,857 in January 2020, before the pandemic began. According to city estimates, the number of people living outside and in the subway decreased to 2,376 in January 2021, but this year the city changed its survey system in response to the pandemic, counting unhoused people earlier in the evening, before the MTA shut down the trains to clear the people from them. Many advocates believe this number undercounted the unhoused population.
De Blasio also increased the number of sweeps for encampments to destroy — between 2016 and 2019, the city conducted fewer than 100 sweeps per month, ramping up in the summer of 2021 to nearly 1,000 in the month of June, according to data from the Urban Justice Center obtained by a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request. (In comparison, Adams’ administration conducted 134 sweeps in his first month as mayor, according to the center.)
“We’re going to keep trying until we get it right,” said Adams at a March 30 press conference when asked why he thought his plan would be more effective. “I’m not sure what [de Blasio] did; that was the previous administration. There is a new administration and the mayor is not called Bill de Blasio, he is called Eric Adams.”
Adams’ initiative — which stems from a task force made up of New York City Department of Social Services (DSS), New York City Department of Sanitation (DSNY), New York City Parks Department and NYPD employees — began its initial sweeps on March 18. The city said it provides 24-hour notice to unhoused residents before removing an encampment, and also provides information on nearby shelters and services. The NYPD is in charge of storing a person’s belongings via a voucher system in a local precinct, and then the city’s Property Clerk Office, where those belongings are transferred after 30 days. City workers will clear an encampment regardless of whether a person decides to relocate to a shelter, according to a spokesperson for the city. The city did not answer questions about the number of municipal employees on the task force or the location of the encampments.
De Blasio’s sweeps led some in the DHS to believe that the goal was to force unhoused people into shelters, eroding trust in city workers. Homeless advocates today have many of the same concerns they did then. Relocating the unhoused from one street to another, while taking, or in some cases throwing away, their belongings, not only disturbs a person’s already unpredictable life, but can erode trust in city services to the point where an unhoused person might not take city housing when it is available, said Jacquelyn Simone, the policy director of the Coalition for the Homeless.
“The sweeps are really counterproductive in that sense, because they can push people further away from services when those safe indoor options are [opened],” Simone said. “Imagine if you were trying to survive on the streets and dozens of police officers and other city workers showed up and threw out your few belongings — would you want to engage in city services? Would you trust when they said that they’re trying to help you or would you be more skeptical of engaging with them in the future?”
Trust is something Tom Harris, the president of the Times Square Business Improvement District (BID), has tried to build with the unhoused community sleeping in Times Square. The land of neon signs, luxury shops and Broadway theater took a community-based approach to a group of people sheltering in the area, according to Harris. Times Square regularly had about nine or 10 people sleeping outside before the pandemic, but Harris said that number grew to 31 as of January 2021.
The BID partnered with organizations like Breaking Ground, Fountain House and Midtown Community Court — two nonprofits and one rehabilitation-focused court, respectively — and advocates were able to build a rapport with homeless individuals, eventually convincing several to relocate to supportive housing or shelters. Nine people still reside outdoors in Times Square, but Harris believes a relationship-building approach was the right one, along with improving shelter conditions.
“Interacting with them, getting to know them, and building trust with them is going to be what allows them to accept services from the providers who are offering the services to them on the street,” Harris said.
Breaking Ground — which relocates people into permanent and transitional housing — has partnered with the city since 2007 and focuses on serving those experiencing homelessness in Brooklyn, Queens and Midtown Manhattan, according to Brenda Rosen, the organization’s president and CEO. The city has let Breaking Ground know where and when it plans to remove an encampment so Breaking Ground can offer residents assistance or the use of one of its 500 beds, all but eight of which were occupied as of March 31.
Everyone agrees that the city needs more beds to house the city’s unhoused residents, and Adams announced an additional 80 on March 29. The opening of the Morris Avenue Safe Haven in the Bronx brings the total number of open, easily accessible beds to 350 — and Adams plans to open a total of 500 by year-end. But, at the same time, an estimated more than 2,000 unhoused people live in the city’s subway system. Adams said he would consider other options, including converting hotels to shelters, at a press conference announcing the opening of the Morris Avenue Safe Haven on March 29.
“I’m a big believer in retrofitting and changing hotels into housing,” Adams said at the press conference. “We’re going to continue to identify the need to fulfill the need.”
Property owners and advocates both hope Adams will take advantage of the opportunity to convert distressed hotels into housing. But what stops some of the city’s unhoused residents from entering the shelter system is the belief that they are safer on the streets than in the shelter system, Rosen said.
Inside shelters, residents face the risk of catching the coronavirus — which killed more than 100 New Yorkers experiencing homelessness in the first half of 2020 alone — and crime and exposure if they decide to remain outside.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends not relocating homeless persons from encampments unless they can be housed in spaces where they can adequately socially distance themselves. (It’s worth noting that de Blasio removed encampments during the pandemic as well, which was also against the CDC’s guidance at the time.)
“Closing encampments can lead people to disperse and result in increased crowding at other encampments or in shelters, which can increase the risk of spreading infectious disease, including COVID-19,” read the guidelines. “Encampment disbursement should only be conducted as part of a plan to rehouse people living in encampments, developed in coordination with local homeless service providers and public health partners.”
The DSS did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the CDC guidance, protective measures for residents staying in shelters and if COVID-19 tests are available to those residents.
Outdoors, exposure and crime are dangers as well. Between 2019 and 2020, the city Office of the Chief Medical Examiner found at least 13 people suspected to be homeless who died in New York City as a result of hypothermia — the youngest being 32 years old, according to data obtained via a FOIL request. In order to house such residents, rather than just removing their temporary outdoor shelters, the city will have to both find enough housing and convince residents to take it — not an easy feat, Simone of Coalition for the Homeless said.
“Adams is almost portraying how the prior administration ignored the issue, and then doing the exact same thing the prior administration tried and failed,” she said. “It is frustrating because what would actually work is opening up more of these private shelter options and offering them to people on the streets. … But heavy-handed policing just moves people from one street corner to another or from the subways to the streets. It doesn’t actually connect them to safe indoor places.”
Celia Young can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.