Amid growing calls by 2020 Uprising protestors to #DefundNYPD, the New York Police Department (NYPD) is slated to expand its homeless diversion efforts in fiscal year 2021, allocating $65,000 in the proposed budget—which will go into effect on July 1—to hire new uniformed officers for homeless outreach. Meanwhile, the Department of Homeless Services (DHS) plans to decrease its funds by $2 million for its own outreach, drop-in and reception services.
The investment in cops providing social services, instead of social workers themselves, may come as a surprise to some: The DHS’s overall budget is actually (slightly) increasing, while NYPD’s marginally decreases. Yet the streets will see more cops than before doing outreach—with the addition of 59 uniformed officers, comprising the majority of all new uniformed positions (65)—whereas social service outreach workers’ headcount, at 81, will remain the same.
The DHS did not respond to Filter‘s request for comment.
In the scheme of various city agencies’ billion-dollar budgets, the shifts are relatively small. But the direction of the flow of funds, towards police-involved responses and away from those led by social workers, manifests the very thing advocates protest: cops morphing into social workers.
“The increased reliance on the NYPD to conduct outreach […] is counterproductive and misguided,” said the Coalition for the Homeless in a January 23 statement, responding to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s push for the NYPD to become more involved in homeless services. “The practices of issuing summonses, surveilling homeless individuals, and coercing people to leave the subways with threats of arrest are inhumane and a misuse of police officers’ time.”
In June 2019, de Blasio announced the creation of the NYPD Subway Diversion Program, an effort that anonymous NYPD transit officers denounced. “[W]e are unjustly criminalizing individuals who have done nothing worse than the average person in the subway all because they have no home,” they wrote in an open letter from last year. They claimed the department is setting quotas for diversion arrests, increasing surveillance and forcing overtime. “It isn’t helping anyone.”
As the COVID-19 crisis escalated in the spring, de Blasio shut down the subways overnight in the name of mitigating the spread. But immediately, the vast majority (90 percent) of unhoused people ejected by NYPD from the trains moved to the streets and buses, instead of DHS shelters, as was supposedly hoped.
“I’m going to sleep outside again,” said Rick, an unhoused New Yorker removed from the subway, in a May 8 conversation with a member of Human.NYC, a street homeless advocacy organization. “This is what happens. There’s no help. There’s no help.”
The numbers of unhoused people not utilizing DHS services speak for themselves. But a Human.NYC video demonstrates how police are unqualified to do the job. “[A] man clearly struggling and in need of serious medical attention,” tweeted the organization, ‘was told “get your ass up’ by NYPD’s Homeless Outreach Unit.”
Even when outside the subways, unhoused people are harassed by the NYPD, under the direction of de Blasio. Sweeps of encampments have increased by the dozens since late last year, Gothamist reported. “If the city isn’t going to give me a safe place to stay inside,” one unhoused person said in the article, “can’t they at least just let me live in peace outside?”
The NYPD’s expansion into homeless outreach is one area that 2020 Uprising activists say ought to be cut to help meet their demand for a $1 billion NYPD budget cut for FY 2021. In particular, Leo Ferguson, a community organizer with Jews for Racial and Economic Justice and participant in the coalition Communities United for Police Reform, estimated in an interview with the City & State that the city would be $400 million closer to meeting the demand if such programs involving cops providing social services were slashed.
The current abolitionist demands align with what housing advocates have called for for a while. “We urge the Mayor,” wrote the Coalition for the Homeless, “to shift the focus of engagement from NYPD officers to trained social services professionals in all interactions with homeless individuals, and to further build upon these initial investments in housing and safe havens.”