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The Adams Administration Displaced 2,308 People in Homeless Sweeps, But Only 3 Have Permanent Housing Now

Throwing people's belongings into the trash and threatening them with arrest didn't help the vast majority of them find housing.

2:24 PM EDT on June 28, 2023

(David Brand)

Shortly after taking office, Mayor Eric Adams ramped up the practice of "sweeping" the locations on the street where homeless New Yorkers live, a process in which the NYPD, Department of Sanitation, and the Department of Homeless Services (DHS) descend on homeless encampments en masse, in an effort to clear them out. During these sweeps, people are asked whether they need services or want to enter the shelter system; meanwhile, their makeshift homes, and many of their possessions, are often tossed into the back of a trash truck.

"I'm not leaving any New Yorkers behind, we're moving together," Adams said in March of 2022, in response to critiques of the sweeps. "There's nothing dignified about living in the streets."

But an audit by Comptroller Brad Lander found that the sweeps were ineffective in both clearing out encampments and finding people a permanent place to live. Only three people out of a total of 2,308 homeless residents caught up in sweeps between March and November of 2022 found permanent housing, while just 43 people remain in City shelters from those particular sweeps. Of the 99 locations that the City swept during this time frame, 31 sites have now been rebuilt as homeless encampments.

"The evidence is clear—by every measure, the homeless sweeps failed," Lander said at a press conference on Wednesday morning, held a block away from "Anarchy Row," the site of a former homeless encampment outside of an abandoned school where the City has repeatedly staged homeless sweeps. 

"Despite the fact that the primary goal was to provide these people with temporary housing and assistance, 95 percent of the people at sweeps did not go into shelter for a single night, and there's no record of other services that they received," Lander said. 

The comptroller added, "These [sweeps] are counterproductive, and they fail utterly to connect people to services and to shelter."

While Mayor Bill de Blasio increased the number of sweeps during the COVID-19 pandemic, Mayor Adams put the NYPD back in charge of leading the actions.

Lander's audit covered only the participation of the Department of Homeless Services in the sweeps, and focused on whether people found shelter or other support; it did not track if there were arrests or where people's belongings were taken. The audit was also narrowly focused on just the months between March and November of last year. According to the comptroller, DHS didn't collect data on what happened to every person encountered at those sweeps, only those who accepted shelter, and even then, DHS didn't continue to closely track people once they entered shelters to see if they had been placed in permanent housing. 

In the audit, Lander urges the City to pursue a "Housing First" strategy, utilized by other cities like Houston, that puts people who are street homeless directly into housing, instead of making them jump through administrative hoops. New York City had previously used the approach to help homeless veterans, which reduced the number of homeless veterans on New York City streets by 90 percent

Over the past few months, City Hall has expanded the use of "Safe Haven" shelters, which are single rooms for unhoused people who might be resistant to staying in the City's group shelter settings. Lander urged the Adams administration to continue to expand the program, which he said was vastly "outperforming" the sweeps model, with over twenty people now in permanent housing. 

Lander's audit is the latest broadside against City Hall launched by the comptroller's office, which has faulted the mayor on everything from the handling of the arrival of migrants, to depressing wages for delivery workers, to the City's decision to change its Medicare plan for its retired workers

The criticism appears to be hitting home. Earlier this month, Mayor Adams did an impression of Lander as the "loudest person in the city." 

One curious omission in the comptroller's audit: just how much money was spent on the homeless sweeps. Hell Gate asked Lander if there was any investigation into the cost of NYPD enforcement, the hours that Sanitation workers spent trashing people's belongings, or an estimate of the value of the possessions of homeless individuals that were thrown into the garbage.

"It's something we're interested in," Lander replied, insisting that the purpose of this audit was to just make a cost comparison between shelters and permanent housing, rather than what resources went into clearing out homeless encampments. "But quite a lot of money was spent on the sweeps." 

In response to a request for comment, a City Hall spokesperson said, "Despite the inherent difficulty of this work, our efforts have been indisputably successful. In the first year of this initiative, New Yorkers experiencing unsheltered homelessness accepted services at six times the rate they did under the previous administration's approach and a significant majority of cleanups have not resulted in an encampment being re-established."

The spokesperson also said that City Hall has already acted on the comptroller's recommendation of pursuing a "Housing First" model, and that through its pilot program, 80 people have been moved directly from the street into housing. 

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