On a sweltering July afternoon, a homeless man named Melvin Douglas biked up to his sleeping spot beneath the High Line, the elevated, art-filled New York park overlooking the Hudson River, and found that a city cleanup crew had thrown away his possessions — again. The same thing had happened the day before.
“Brand-new clothes, brand-new T-shirts, everything,” Mr. Douglas, 54, said as he shook his head at the bare sidewalk. “They took all my stuff, bro. No regard at all.”
As the country’s most populous city strives to lure back tourists and office workers, it has undertaken an aggressive campaign to push homeless people off the streets of Manhattan.
City workers used to tear down one or two encampments a day. Now, they sometimes clear dozens. Since late May, teams that include sanitation workers in garbage trucks, police officers and outreach workers have cruised Manhattan around the clock, hitting the same spots over and over.
The sweeps are part of a broader effort by Mayor Bill de Blasio that includes transferring over 8,000 people from hotels, where they had been placed to stem the spread of the coronavirus, to barracks-style group shelters. The transfers are continuing despite the recent surge in the Delta variant of the virus, though the city told a judge it would delay the moves Monday to address concerns that it was not adequately considering people’s health problems and disabilities.
The city is also responding to months of complaints about homeless people blocking and befouling public spaces, menacing passers-by and committing random assaults. On Wednesday, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, whose administration has slashed aid for addressing homelessness, cited the problem as one of the main hurdles to the city’s recovery. “We have to get homelessness under control,” he said.
The debate over how to tackle homelessness in New York City, where over 2,000 people live on the streets and the subway, comes as cities across the country grapple with growing encampments. On Wednesday, the Los Angeles City Council outlawed camping near parks, libraries and schools. On Saturday, a national eviction moratorium expired, sparking fears of a new surge in homelessness, though in New York the moratorium continues through Aug. 31.
The city’s Department of Homeless Services says it resorts to cleanups only in the case of “service-resistant individuals” and is committed to helping people find homes.
“The name of the game is compassionate, consistent outreach,” Bill Neidhardt, a spokesman for the mayor, said in a statement. “The end goal is always permanent housing.”
But the city’s ability to offer people such housing is limited, and the process is slow. And advocates for homeless people and some city employees say the sweeps accomplish little more than chasing people from one spot to another, upending already precarious lives and — by blurring outreach and enforcement — discouraging people from accepting help.
“They are trying to make life so miserable on the streets that people will come into shelters, but that is a cruel and ineffective approach,” said Josh Dean, the founder of Human.nyc, a policy group focused on street homelessness. “People need to trust outreach workers, and this approach is destroying trust.”
The cleanups also defy Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Covid-19 recommendations against displacing people who live outdoors unless they are being moved to “individual housing.” Covid-19 has killed over 120 homeless people in the city and has infected more than 4,100, officials say.
According to a statement from the homeless services department, the cleanup crews do not throw away people’s belongings.
Rather, they “carefully assess” a site while noting the “number and type of possessions,” remove items to protect “valuable property” and “quality-of-life for the client,” and provide “details about how they can obtain the property.”
Max Goren, who lives in Tompkins Square Park in the East Village, has found reality to be a bit different.
“At least once a week, a sanitation truck rolls up,” Mr. Goren, 34, said in July. “If you’re not there to say, ‘Hey, that’s mine’, everything goes in the back.”
He said his possessions had been trashed three times — each time because he left them to go to a methadone clinic.
“Do I want to risk losing all of my clothes and all my bedding, or do I miss my clinic appointment?” he said.
“I think it’s an effort to get us to leave,” he said. “But where are we going to go? If I had some place to go, I wouldn’t be here.”
In Times Square, the city’s tourist center, a business group is testing a very different approach.
There, teams of people, some of whom were previously homeless or incarcerated, hand out T-shirts, socks, granola bars and water, hoping to build trust and, gradually, connect homeless people to social services. They only offer services if people ask.
The idea for the program, which recently won a $350,000 city grant, originated with Tom Harris, a retired police officer and the president of the Times Square Alliance, a nonprofit that promotes businesses in the area. Last year, Mr. Harris watched in dismay as street homelessness and open drug use increased in the area. At some outdoor dining tables, people took food off customers’ plates.
“The status quo was untenable,” he said.
But Mr. Harris was determined not to rely on the police. His view was informed by decades as an officer in Brooklyn, where he found that the most effective way to stop someone from committing robberies, for example, was to address underlying problems like addiction.
Working with the Midtown Community Court, which provides alternatives to jail for those accused of low-level crimes, Mr. Harris helped create Community First, a program that can refer people to nonprofits that offer housing or rehabilitation for people with mental illness.
After meeting with 136 homeless people, Community First teams found a stunning array of systemic problems. Some people had been released from jail without IDs or stable housing. Many struggled with substance abuse.
“We’re not going to tear down your home that you built out of boxes,” said Lauren Curatolo, the community court’s project director. “We want to support you so that you eventually want to have a bed in a space.”
For one man sleeping outside a Broadway theater, it took team members about a dozen visits — after showing up repeatedly with applesauce, his favorite snack — before he entered a homeless shelter and took a job training course.
People who are homeless and their advocates say that what they want, mainly, is something that is in short supply: a place to live with a modicum of privacy. The best that outreach workers can typically offer is a berth in a group shelter where 10 to 20 people often share a bedroom.
Since early 2020, the city shelter system has added more than 1,300 beds in single- or double-occupancy rooms that have drawn people in off the streets. But thousands more units are needed, the Coalition for the Homeless said.
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One afternoon in June, a Community First team encountered Richard Birthwright, who said he had lost his job at a meat plant in North Carolina, returned to New York and started to sleep in the street.
When a housing specialist told Mr. Birthwright, 54, that there was little long-term housing for people who had been in the street for under a year and suggested a group shelter, he tensed up. He said that shelter workers were disrespectful and that he preferred to stay on the street.
Community First helped him create a résumé and secure an interview to work as a street cleaner in Times Square.
“Everything is working out just right,” he said. “I needed this.”
Some business leaders are skeptical. “I don’t think persuasion is going to get people off the streets,” said Barbara Blair, the president of the Garment District Alliance, which represents businesses and property owners south of Times Square.
Ms. Blair, who has advocated removing homeless people from Midtown hotels, said the city had “utterly failed in terms of providing supportive housing for people who are very, very ill.” A middle ground should be possible, she said.
“The city has to balance keeping the streets livable for the rest of the population and at the same time removing these people from the streets into a place that’s safe,” she said.
David Stayback, a construction worker in Times Square who was homeless in the area for two years, said the neighborhood had become an uneasy environment for him and his colleagues. “I’ve had knives pulled on me,” he said.
“I was a formerly homeless ex-con on the streets selling drugs,” he said. “When I talk to you like this, I’m not judging them.”
As recently as a year ago, after the Black Lives Matter protests, the city moved to reduce officers’ interactions with homeless people, disbanding the Police Department’s Homeless Outreach Unit. It has done an about-face in response to public outcry.
So the sweeps go on. At 14th Street and First Avenue in the East Village, a choreographed routine has developed.
One recent morning, street vendors set up tables a respectful distance from a sign announcing the day’s cleanup.
The city crew arrived. A sanitation supervisor took a photo of the sign that showed the lack of clutter around it. “I’ve just got to show my boss that I came and I did my job,” he said.
As officers stood guard, an outreach worker tried to convince a woman named Yolanda Evans to go to a group shelter. Ms. Evans said her many health problems made the risk unacceptable during an epidemic.
“How am I going to stay in a room with eight to 10 people?” she asked.
One homeless book vendor, Michael Jones, said the city crews had served a purpose.
“You had people building shanty towns near the scaffolding and terrorizing people,” he said. “At the end of the day, people were messing up a good hustle.”
Under the High Line, Melvin Douglas is tiring of playing cat and mouse. A week after his belongings were thrown out two days in a row, he stashed them neatly behind a pole, left briefly and returned to find them gone yet again.
“I don’t even have a clean change of underwear right now,” he said as he sat dejectedly beneath a sign announcing that the crew would return the next day.
Mr. Douglas said he might set up camp elsewhere in the city.
He said he had been where he was, thinking he was not bothering anyone, for close to three years.
“This is my spot,” he said.
Nate Schweber contributed reporting.