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Homeless Civil Rights
Protecting Homeless New Yorkers from Unconstitutional Police Behavior.
Much of our work to stop the NYPD from violating the rights of homeless people is carried out in partnership with our comrades in the citywide alliance Communities united for Police Reform – click here for more info about our work with them. See below for a campaign overview and history, or check out these highlights of our recent civil rights work:
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Homeless people are stopped, ticketed, arrested, threatened, told to “move on”, have their belongings thrown away, and are assaulted by the NYPD on a regular basis. Deemed “bad for business” under Broken Windows policing, and in particular through the selective enforcement of ‘Quality of Life’ laws, homeless New Yorkers get defined by the media as the problem, rather than the lack of affordable housing itself. Once you define someone, or a group of folks, as the problem, then violating their rights becomes justifiable – and even necessary to protect the common good. Therefore, for homeless folks, life sustaining activities such as standing, sitting or lying down in public space can land you in jail.
Because the NYPD have complete discretion over whether to warn, ticket or arrest New Yorkers for violations – in a policing climate that has already been proven to be discriminatory – discretion equals discrimination. Factor in patterns of racial discrimination by the NYPD and the fact that Black and Brown New Yorkers are over-represented among those without homes, and the recipe for the violation of the civil rights of homeless New Yorkers is complete. Contextualize this with policing practices throughout the United States, and it is clear that as the housing market excludes more and more low income people, most municipalities are relying on the police to remove homeless folks from public space.
Background on our Civil Rights Campaign
Our co-founders started organizing in Bellevue Men’s Shelter back in November of 1999, after an office worker was injured by an unknown assailant whom witnesses described as an African American, homeless man. Pre-dawn police raids on homeless shelters, crackdowns on life-sustaining constitutionally-protected activities like panhandling, and a media frenzy stigmatizing homeless folks as criminally dangerous immediately followed. Absent was the voice and analysis of homeless New Yorkers. Picture the Homeless was founded to change that. One of their first steps was walking from Bellevue to WBAI radio, hoping for free air time on Wake Up Call airing at 6:30AM. They held meetings in Bellevue until it became clear that organizing would result in shelter sanctions and eventually being given a punitive transfer (which finally happened). They found meeting space at CHARAS/El Bohio in January of 2000 until the late winter of 2001, when we secured office and meeting space at Judson Memorial Church. Four homeless men attended that meeting, and of all the issues that they had to deal with, they wanted to focus on ending police harassment. We reached out to the San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness, NYC Police Watch and other allies for assistance. Our Civil Rights Campaign was launched in 2002 and we named it “Whose Quality of Life?” Our first action was to directly challenge Mayor Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly’s Crackdown on what they termed the Seven City Sins: the seventh being homelessness.
Fighting Back, and Building Power
We built our base from a handful of homeless folks to over 30 attending weekly meetings, most of them “street homeless” in those early years. We cut our civil rights organizing teeth during a series of actions defending the rights of homeless folks in public space. We developed a participatory action research project with civil rights campaign members, creating a survey to document the extent of illegal police behavior. Over the course of what we called “Freedom Summer” we trained civil rights campaign members and a few volunteers, and divided up the Borough of Manhattan into three sections. Hitting the streets three days a week, we interviewed over 500 homeless people to document the impact of Quality of Life policing on homeless New Yorkers, documenting how widespread and harmful the problem was. This also helped us develop a common language and analysis of the problem, which we defined as selective enforcement of Quality of Life violations directly tied to Broken Windows policing.
In a climate of increased targeting of homeless New Yorkers in public space, we sued the NYPD in Federal Court in 2003, and won a landmark settlement that forced NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly to create a policy against selective enforcement of the law against the homeless. We have since developed popular education materials, skits and videos and presented on panels and workshops hundreds of times: creating space for homeless New Yorkers to represent themselves and their issues. We’ve also educated thousands of homeless New Yorkers about their rights: tabling in soup kitchens, shelters and on the streets. We launched Operation Cardboard box during the Republican National Convention, successfully pushed back on restricting public access to the area around Madison Square Garden and we kept the General Delivery Post Office open for business during the RNC, ensuring that nearly 1,000 homeless people, including Veterans, who received their mail there would be able to access their public benefits.
We’ve been arrested in Central Park in protest of selective enforcement of Parks curfew, resulting in the Parks police “backing off” of several of our members and effectively leaving them alone. Our right to panhandle actions around Yankee Stadium resulted in the local precinct Captain agreeing to instruct officers to respect homeless folks first amendment rights.
Intersecting Communities: Changing the Conversation
One of our very first actions was protesting the killing of Amadou Diallou by the NYPD Street Crimes Unit. Because our membership is overwhelmingly African American and Latino, racial profiling and the killing of people of color by the NYPD has always been in the forefront of our analysis. Moving the social justice and police accountability movement in New York City to include the harassment of homeless folks was an early goals of our civil rights work.
Picture the Homeless was in the founding leadership of Communities United for Police Reform (CPR), a landmark alliance of dozens of groups whose members are directly affected by police violence, and our institutional allies. Through a combination of policy, legislation, organizing, documentation, community education and legal support, CPR has passed laws, forced policy change and built the capacity of people directly impacted by police violence to organize. Collectively, we played a significant role in making police reform a factor in the election of Mayor Bill De Blasio.
CPR developed the Community Safety Act, a landmark legislative package aimed at ending discriminatory policing and bringing real accountability to the NYPD. Youth of color, LGBTQ youth, Muslim-Americans, immigrants, and many more have been disproportionately targeted for unconstitutional stops and police brutality.
We won inclusion of housing status in the Community Safety Act. Picture the Homeless members were essential to winning this hard-fought victory. We also built our capacity in terms of expanded ally relationships, and deepened our understanding of how to actually win legislative and policy victories. Our members were instrumental in educating allies within CPR that homeless folks are profiled because of their homeless status and how homelessness intersects with other stigmatized identities. In turn, our allies fought for the inclusion of housing status in the Community Safety Act, alongside our members. PTH members not only made their case, but were highly visible as spokespersons for CPR, engaged in outreach, conducting surveys, and Know Your Rights trainings, and in organizing organized community forums in Harlem and the Bronx.
In 2013, the New York City Council overrode Mayor Bloomberg’s veto of the Community Safety Act – a landmark victory that strengthened and expanded the ban on racial and other discriminatory profiling, and established independent oversight of the NYPD. Both bills went into effect on January 1, 2014 – the first time in U.S. history that “housing status” has been established as a class protected from police profiling.
Other Struggles, Other Victories
Our constant outreach to homeless people means we’re always learning about new threats and new problems. In the past two years our Civil Rights campaign has mobilized to win crucial victories large and small, including: helping move the City to create a “municipal ID” program and ensured that the program would be accessible to people without a fixed address, helping tens of thousands of homeless people avoid unnecessary arrest; getting the NYPD Commissioner to publicly promise to cease warrant-squad raids on homeless shelters in the 24th Precinct (Upper West Side Manhattan); getting the Department of Homeless Services to stop telling the NYPD about homeless shelter residents with outstanding warrants for “Quality of Life” violations; and forcing the MTA & NYPD to cancel a planned “purge” of homeless people from the subway system.