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The NYPD shouldn’t take the lead in solving New York’s homelessness crisis

Andy Byford, President of New York City Transit announcement this week that he would ask the city, including the police, to help respond to homeless people exhibiting “offensive, obnoxious and antisocial” behavior on the subway.

The comments spark new concerns that the NYPD could exacerbate the city’s already problematic track record of criminalizing the homeless.

“There’s a fundamental difference between someone coming in to warm up and sitting in a seat and dozing off, I don’t really have a problem with that,” Byford said at a meeting of the board of directors of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. “But lying on a seat or behaving antisocially or making a mess is not acceptable.”

Byford added that people “being offensive, obnoxious and anti-social” is something “we are not prepared to tolerate”.

It remains to be seen how these comments from Byford will be interpreted by city transit workers and the NYPD. And Byford said he remains committed to ensuring homeless people in subways get “the help they need”. After his first comments made headlines, Byford clarified that he was not calling for a “blitz” or a “mass eviction” of the homeless.

But the fact that the police confront people displaying “anti-social” behavior always sets off alarm bells. What are the criteria for determining who exhibits such behavior? What will the police do when called upon to deal with these situations?

Much of the concern over these comments stems from the NYPD’s history of criminalizing and degrading the homeless.

The New York Civil Liberties Union filed a complaint two years ago, asking the New York City Commission on Human Rights to investigate the NYPD’s practice of forcing homeless people in Harlem to ‘move’ from place to place other, sometimes threatening them with arrest. Those repeatedly stalked by the NYPD had broken no laws and were simply present on the streets, sidewalks and other public spaces.

Forcing people who are doing nothing wrong to move in this way violates the city’s Community Safety Act, which prohibits “bias-based profiling” that includes targeting people based on their housing status. Homeless New Yorkers have the same right to use public spaces as everyone else. The complaint is still pending before the commission.

Last year, NYCLU announced a regulation on behalf of three homeless people who were kicked awake at which NYPD officers and sanitation workers threw away their Social Security cards, birth certificates and medications.

And the same week that Byford made his comments at the MTA meeting, the New York Daily News reported that the NYPD is adding new surveillance cameras in a part of Manhattan’s Upper East Side “where homeless people tend to congregate and have been charged with various quality of life offenses.” Quality of life violations include things like drinking a beer on the sidewalk.

Aggressive enforcement of these types of minor offenses has historically pushed hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers into the criminal justice system. Two years ago, the city passed legislation designed to steer the city away from focusing on these types of offenses, making reporting on these cameras and their purpose particularly daunting. Poor and homeless New Yorkers have historically been disproportionately targeted for minor offenses.

The police should not be on the front line to deal with the crisis of over 60,000 New Yorkers living without homes. Respond effectively to this humanitarian emergency, which has been spurred by a shortage of affordable housingwill require a society-wide response, as Byford himself acknowledges.

Time will tell what impact Byford’s comments have on homeless New Yorkers, but the NYPD cannot be allowed to criminalize homeless people simply for their existence.