It happens before dawn.
Between the hours of 3 and 5 AM, a small force of officers from the New York Police Department arrive at homeless shelters across the city. According to the people who sleep there, the cops ask the Department of Homeless Services employees at the front desks for the bed numbers of their sleeping targets, and, once in hand, an officer finds their spots, flashes a light to quietly wake them up, and takes them outside, where a police van waits.
Known on the streets as "warrant squads," the units are apparently on the hunt for the countless homeless people facing open arrest warrants. The raids are sporadic—they can happen once a month, or twice a week, homeless people told me. Subjects said not adhering to a pattern is the point, so homeless individuals with open warrants can't anticipate persecution and dodge a particular shelter. It's also done in the middle of the night, for efficiency's sake.
As one 35-year-old homeless man named Jonathan Allen put it, "They know we have to be here."
Conversations with men and women who sleep at various shelters across town suggest this policing practice, a holdover from the days of Rudolph Giuliani—a mayor known for combating homelessness aggressively in the 90s—is still alive and well in 2015. After being elected with a progressive and police reform agenda, Mayor Bill de Blasio's law enforcement apparatus is undermining the trust that his administration desperately needs to bridge with the city's most vulnerable community.
To be sure, de Blasio has taken major steps to help the homeless. He has added millions of dollars to that effect in his budget; expanded a much-needed rent-subsidy program; advocated with his wife, Chirlane McCray, for mental health initiatives; introduced more beds for the homeless with Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan as winter approaches; and, most recently, hired more lawyers to deal with eviction in gentrifying neighborhoods.
But especially after last week's visit from the "People's Pope," homeless New Yorkers and their advocates want to know why the city is dealing with an unprecedented homelessness crisis in part by arresting people for next to nothing.
After the Picture the Homeless rally ended, I took the M35 bus to Wards Island. The place is desolate, save for a handful of large homeless shelters and the sounds of the bustling Triboro Bridge overhead. When I arrived, the residents were scattered across the grounds, escaping the heat under small trees.
"You're disoriented and angry," Jonathan Allen, who has intermittently lived in Wards Island facilities, told me about his raid experience. "You're asking, 'What's going on?' Then they crush you into the vans like sardines. And it's a freezer in there."
Later, I met a 35-year-old black man named Maurice Kid, who said he had never been the subject of a warrant squad raid, but that they used to happen once a week here. After shelter-hopping, he had recently returned to living in the Schwartz Shelter on Wards Island, where residents have to be inside by 10 PM, or else their bed is gone. So the raids have to be late at night, he explained, when everyone is checked in.
"It's easier access," he told me. "Think about it: They're given entry immediately, right through the front door, and all they have to say is, 'Do you have this person in your system?' Sometimes they show the employee at the front desk a photo on their phone. 'Oh yeah, they're in this room.'"
But still, something didn't add up to me. In many ways, besides the fact that these raids are basically useless for crime prevention purposes, they actually further perpetuate the vicious cycle of homelessness on the streets of New York City. So what's the point of them? Was it really just a convenience for lazy police officers, who'd rather pick on the homeless than the average citizen? Or was I missing something?
"What I'm interested in is what these warrants for," O'Donnell, the former cop and prosecutor, told me. "If they're for violent crimes, that's a different story. But if they're for minor offenses, that's probably gonna have a real disruptive impact on this community.
"Like with anything in policing, you have to ask," he continued, "'Is this necessary?'"
At the time of the Freedom House raids last year, Joshua Goldfein, a staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society's Homeless Rights Project, told Capital New York that "a large majority" of the warrants are based on low-level offenses, which are either dismissed that day or months later at another court date. Further, Goldfein added, "It is counterproductive for the NYPD to do warrant sweeps in shelters when DHS is working so hard to encourage people to come in to safety and get off the street."
When I asked homeless people why this is happening, most said it was to meet quotas—the statistics-based policing that critics (and even some police officers) say is encouraged by One Police Plaza—and that the homeless arrests can act as fodder for the stats. This, they argued, may explain why the raids fluctuate: Some months have low numbers, perhaps meaning the cops don't need as many arrests; when the raids go up, the cops are presumably in need of some juice.
But others were less conspiratorial or accusatory, accepting the fact this is just another obstacle in the life of the homeless in New York City. And what's particularly perplexing about this procedure is not only how it targets those most vulnerable and down on their luck, but how it seems so menial to do this. There are over 1.2 million open warrants currently floating around in New York City right now; the Brooklyn District Attorney's office has started a program to essentially vacate some of them just to clear up some backlog. The Mayor, too, has expressed interest in more speedy trials to stop these warrants from stacking up. (City Hall was reached for comment on this story but we have yet to hear back.)
As it stands, a significant fraction of New Yorkers have outstanding warrants, but only one portion of the population has to keep one eye open in the middle of the night.
"Pick any building in New York," Brodie Enoch, a director at Picture the Homeless, told me at the rally, gesturing towards the longstanding apartments and newly built condos of Harlem's East Side. "I guarantee someone in there has an open warrant out for them. So why aren't they getting their door smashed in? Why are they only doing this to the homeless?"
Enoch, who was once homeless himself, shrugged. "Because we have no voice," he said, answering his own question. "We're always the guinea pigs."
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