Results so far are mixed on New York City’s effort to move homeless people out of the subway system and street encampments and into shelters, Mayor Eric Adams said Wednesday.
The mayor, who has called the initiatives crucial to the city’s recovery from the pandemic and to addressing perceptions that it had grown less safe, and his staff said that sanitation workers in partnership with the police had cleared 239 encampments in 12 days.
But only five people at those sites agreed to go to homeless shelters, a sign that most of them may remain outdoors and many were likely to rebuild their makeshift camps.
During the first four weeks of the push to clear the subways, nearly 80 people per week accepted placement in shelters, according to city figures — a jump from about 22 per week in January, before Mr. Adams put his subway safety plan into effect.
But city statistics for January showed that more than two-thirds of the people in the subway who agreed to go to shelters had already left them by the end of the month. City officials declined to immediately say how many of those newly referred to shelters under the city’s latest initiative remained there.
Mr. Adams cautioned New Yorkers that the programs will take time and that a social problem that has bedeviled generations of mayors would not be solved overnight.
“This is the first inning of a nine-inning game,” he said at a news conference at City Hall. “I’m not concerned about striking out. I’m not concerned about someone hitting our pitches. I’m concerned about the end of this game. And when this game is over, we’re going to have a city far better than a dysfunctional city that we’ve witnessed for far too long.”
His comments seemed aimed at ratcheting down expectations he set in February, when he said of the decades-long practice of people sleeping on trains and subway platforms, “Those days are over.” This month he suggested that he would have the city cleared of street encampments within two weeks.
Of the people on the street who did not agree to go to shelters, Mr. Adams said that “some went back home” to stay with loved ones and “some went to different locations.” Advocates have said that the cleanups often have the effect of simply pushing people and their possessions from one outdoor spot to another.
The State of New York City’s Subway
- New Subway Chief: Richard A. Davey, a former Massachusetts transportation secretary, will be the first permanent leader of New York City Transit since the pandemic began.
- Perspectives From the Platform: We visited three stations to see where subway riders have returned, and where they haven’t.
- Platform Barriers: In a reversal, the M.T.A. will test the use of platform barriers at three stations amid mounting concerns over safety.
- Homelessness Plan: Mayor Eric Adams’s plan to remove homeless people who shelter in the subway appeared to be off to a slow start.
- Transit Crime: A high-profile killing and the varied nature of some attacks show the challenge Mr. Adams faces.
Meera Joshi, the deputy mayor for operations, who appeared with Mr. Adams, stressed that the encampment removals were “not a ‘one and done,’” in part because it takes “constant communication and trust and relationship” to persuade people leery of the shelter system to head inside.
Advocates for homeless people say that the city’s practice of sending out cleanup teams of police, sanitation workers and homeless-outreach workers and routinely throwing away people’s belongings — something that the city denies occurs — breaks that trust.
Mr. Adams emphasized that the city was also in the process of opening 500 beds in specialized shelters that have fewer restrictions, more on-site services and in some cases more privacy than the traditional dormlike shelters that many people who live on the street and shelter in the subway reject.
On Tuesday, he presided at the ribbon-cutting of one such shelter, a so-called safe haven in the Bronx that offers 80 beds, an on-site health clinic, substance-abuse treatment and no curfew.
“You can’t get this on the A train overnight,” he said at the opening. “You can’t get this sleeping in Times Square. You can’t get this sleeping in a cardboard box. You can’t get this sleeping in a tree in the park. You don’t deserve that. You deserve this.”
Jacquelyn Simone, the policy director for the Coalition for the Homeless, said on Wednesday that the city should shift its focus away from enforcement and more toward accelerating the creation of housing.
“Private rooms and permanent housing,” she said. “That’s what people want. You don’t have to do heavy-handed policing to convince someone to come in off the streets if you’re actually offering them an option that is safer and better than the streets.”
Ms. Simone noted that many of the 500 specialized beds Mr. Adams cited were already in the pipeline under his predecessor, Bill de Blasio. Mr. de Blasio built about 2,400 such beds during his eight-year tenure.
Likewise, Mr. Adams’s crackdown on encampments is largely a continuation of a practice that ramped up sharply during Mr. de Blasio’s last year in office, when the city averaged more than 500 cleanups per month.
When questioned about how his approach differed, Mr. Adams demurred. “I’m not sure what he did,” he said. “That was the previous administration.”
Dan Biederman, the president of the 34th Street Partnership, a business improvement district in Manhattan, said that the business owners and property owners within the district generally supported the mayor’s efforts around homelessness and public safety.
“Most of us who are in the fray believe it can’t just be outreach,” Mr. Biederman, who is also president of the Bryant Park Corporation, said. “You can’t have encampments on the street and have people feel safe.”
He also said that he believed Mr. Adams’s plan to tackle subway safety would help alleviate “the climate of fear that is affecting a lot of people who work in Manhattan and stopping some people from coming back to the office.”
Mr. Adams’s presentation included many visuals. One was a photo showing dozens of needles and syringes and other drug paraphernalia — part of a haul of more than 500 needles across four campsites that city officials said were collected under the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.
He also displayed a brochure that will be handed out to people on the streets and subways that shows a tidy bed and a sparkling bathroom beneath the words, “Do you need a place to sleep tonight?”
While it is difficult to accurately count the number of people living unsheltered, the city’s most recent estimate, conducted in January 2021, tallied about 1,300 people sleeping in subways and about 1,100 on the streets. Many advocates consider the estimate to be an undercount.
The vast majority of the city’s approximately 50,000 homeless people live in shelters — about 30,000 in family shelters, and about 18,000 in shelters for single adults.
Transit officials have stressed that the subway is not intended for public shelter and have said that the number of people seeking refuge there raises concerns among some riders and interferes with daily operations.
At a news conference on Wednesday, Janno Lieber, the chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs the subway system, commended the steps being taken to steer homeless people off trains. But he also acknowledged that some of those being referred to services were likely to return to public transit.
“There will be some folks who, God willing, get out of the situation they’re in a permanent way, and being realistic, there will be others that don’t,” Mr. Lieber said. “It’s just too early to say what those percentages are and whether we’re actually making a dent in this situation.”