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Letter sent to NYC Mayor Eric Adams: Do Not Criminalize Homeless New Yorkers for finding Refuge in the Subway

Written by Brian Davis on . Posted in Blog

Dear Mayor Adams:

The National Coalition for the Homeless is alarmed by the subway safety plan released by your administration on February 18, 2022, and are concerned that this will only escalate the issues facing those without stable housing in New York City.  Our concern is this “plan” was tried by the previous administration in New York City and has been tried by other mayors on a smaller scale in many other cities and every time it has failed because affordable housing is never attached to these plans.  NCH and every homeless organization mourns the loss of life in the subways and the escalating amount of violence, but it is misguided to blame these issues on the unhoused.  After 40 years if we have learned one thing it is that use of law enforcement to deal with a social service/housing issues will fail and will only extend the stay on the streets for many caught up in these sweeps.

While we understand that the safety of every rider of the New York subway system (including those without housing) is paramount, our concern is that this plan will only exacerbate the violence.  It also diverts law enforcement resources from solving real crimes to being reduced to crossing guards or curfew violation security officers.  We have seen a number of videos over the last two weeks of encounters between law enforcement and those without housing and it seems as though these encounters are only agitating those who utilize the subway for shelter.  The law enforcement or transit official asks the unhoused individual to move their stuff out of the subway, which typically involves three or four trips down the escalator, and each time the person is more and more frustrated.  We are worried that this subway plan is just going to lead to more and more volatile interactions and eventually people backed into a corner lash out.

What is missing from this plan is where do these individuals go if they are not in the subway?  And based on the videos, shelters are not an option to many of these individuals utilizing the subway.  They clearly describe unsafe, unsupervised and overcrowded conditions that make the streets a more attractive alternative.  We had written to City of New York officials in 2021 about our concern over the shelter conditions and lack of oversight.  Unless you find safe spaces for those you are removing they will continue to utilize the subway, doorways, and bridges to stay alive.  There are so many failed systems that led to people sleeping in the subway and you are entirely focused on the victim of these system failures instead of attacking the causes. 

The National Coalition for the Homeless has many ideas for how local communities can better address the crisis within the behavioral health system and the inability for the market to meet the housing needs of the service based economy we have created, but none of our proposals involve the use of law enforcement to be transformed into social workers. The individuals that you roust from the subways will still use the public transit system, but will be even more suspicious of law enforcement, transit officials, and outreach teams.  Housing First, safe havens, hotel rooms, low barrier facilities all work and are proven to keep people from living on the streets.  We understand the scale of the problem in New York City, but neglecting the population or utilizing police to shuffle people around the city is not going to encourage people to go inside in any capacity. 

The behavioral health system that keeps individuals on a 24 hour hold and then sends them back to the streets; the housing system that takes years to process paperwork and complete inspections, the inability for doctors to prescribe housing as part of the treatment for their patient’s recovery plan; the pharmaceutical industry getting individuals hooked on opioid and keeping the price of other life sustaining medicine too high for many in our society; the vacant and abandoned housing sitting idle while so many sleep outside, and we could go on for 8 pages to describe all the other holes in the social safety net.  But the bottom line is that there is nowhere for these individuals to go and therefore they seek safety in the subways. Until you answer the question where do all these people go, you are just constructing a massive game of hide and seek as part of this security theater for the media. 

Please, for the safety of those who are struggling with their housing and the passengers of the New York transit system, we urge reconsideration of your plan with the publication of a new plan that answers the basic question: where do all these individuals go to stay safe? 

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