According to the Coalition for the Homeless, an New York City-based homeless advocacy group, there are more homeless people spending their nights in city shelters than any time since at least the Great Depression. In total, almost 60,000 people stay in city shelters each night. As for the city's unsheltered population, there's no accurate estimate available, but we know that it ranges in the thousands.
Meanwhile, New York City's biggest police union, the Sergeants Benevolent Association, is taking cues from a letter sent to its members by president Ed Mullins on Monday. In the letter, Mullins encourages members to photograph "the homeless lying in our streets, aggressive panhandlers, people urinating in public or engaging in open-air drug activity, and quality-of-life offenses of every type." The photos, which are already coming in, are being uploaded onto the association's Flickr account.
Many of the people pictured don't seem to be violating any laws: Some are sitting on park benches. Some are sifting through trash. Most are asleep in public. But others are peeing in the street, or standing (or lying) naked.
“New York City has become a permissive place,” president Mullins told CBS New York on Monday. “We are an open invitation to come here because it’s okay to smoke marijuana; it’s okay to urinate in public; it’s okay to remain homeless in the street.”
The goal of the campaign, called "Peek-a-Boo, We See You!", is to prevent NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio and the City Council's plans to decriminalize some quality-of-life offenses—like camping in public—that primarily affect homeless people, Mullins told CBS.
It would appear that the association would rather keep in step with city laws that have increasingly criminalized homelessness across the country, as the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty found in its most recent report. Between 2011 and 2014, the group found a 60% increase in city-wide bans on camping in public. Over that same period, there was a 25% increase in city-wide bans on begging in public. About 30% of homeless respondents in that report said they have been arrested for sleeping in public.
Last year in Geneva, the United Nations' Human Rights Committee condemned the increasing criminalization of homelessness in the U.S. as "cruel, inhuman and degrading." The chairperson for the committee said he was "just simply baffled by the idea that people can be without shelter in a country, and then be treated as criminals for being without shelter.”
NYPD chief Bill Bratton said earlier this year that he was "doubling down" on quality-of-life policing, but that "none of this means we can't explore alternatives to misdemeanor arrests" for those low-level crimes, including ones that primarily impact the homeless. Discretion, he argued, is key.
Mayor de Blasio, in a call to reexamine how the homeless are policed, told CBS New York Monday: "There’s no law in this country against sitting on a park bench. There’s no law against standing next to a store and asking for spare change," while otherwise conceding some quality-of-life crimes should continue to be enforced.
New York City Council speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito told CBS the "Peek-a-Boo" campaign detracts from the real issues of homelessness and police enforcement tactics that the council and the mayor are trying to tackle. "If someone is breaking a law, we want to make sure that’s being enforced," she said. "At the same time, this council has been actively looking at low-level, non-violent offenses. These kinds of tactics are not going to dissuade us from having real legitimate public policy conversations.”
A request for comment from the Sergeants Benevolent Association was not returned by the time of publication.
Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.