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Fed Up With De Blasio, Homeless Advocates Revive Sleep-Out Protest At City Hall Park


In the summer of 1988, Chris Henry, a homeless man, was riding the city subways when he noticed a flier advertising an annual “sleep out” protest to call attention to homelessness at City Hall Park. Henry decided he had nothing better to do so he headed over to St. Paul’s Chapel, where after enjoying a meal, he and about 400 people marched down Broadway towards City Hall Park.

Started in 1985, the sleep outs were intended to make a statement to then Mayor Ed Koch and City Council members about funding for the homeless. At some point, it started pouring, and the group whittled down to about 100, and then to only a dozen who stayed the night. For Henry, the experience was galvanizing. “That was the night I became an activist,” he said.

It didn’t end the way organizers thought it would. The sleep out was supposed to be for only one night. But, unsatisfied with the response they received in the morning from City Hall, the stalwarts who had slept in the park decided they would extend the camp out. Over the next 200 days, their encampment became a symbol of a growing crisis and what a New York Times story called “an eyesore and a political rotten egg for the Koch administration.”

For many homeless activists, it was a defining moment in the city.

“I think that our presence here changed the conversation,” said Marc Greenberg, the executive director of the Interfaith Assembly on Homelessness and Housing who was the original organizer of the sleep out. “People had an opportunity to see homeless people as people, as human beings with stories and faces.”

On a balmy Thursday night, Greenberg, along with about 70 people, convened at City Hall Park for the first sleep out protest since 2012. Activists had suspended sleep-outs under Mayor Bill de Blasio, who promised to alleviate the crisis. But over his term, the numbers of homeless individuals have reached record highs. As of July, there were more than 61,000 people who spent a night in a homeless shelter, a roughly 64 percent increase compared to a decade ago. Homeless advocates have become increasingly critical of the mayor’s policies, namely what they see as his refusal to designate more housing for homeless New Yorkers as part of his affordable housing plan.

To date, of the more than 135,000 affordable homes built or preserved under de Blasio, less than 10 percent, or 11,552, has been set aside for formerly homeless New Yorkers. Giselle Routhier, policy director for Coalition for the Homeless, called the numbers woefully inadequate, in part because it mostly consists of affordable units that were kept affordable but were already occupied.

Under a campaign called House Our Future NY, they have been asking de Blasio to build 24,000 new affordable apartments and preserve another 6,000 more by 2026.

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Activists at the sleep out protest.

Elizabeth Kim / Gothamist

The creation of new affordable apartments is essential to addressing homelessness, according to Routhier. “The problem is there aren’t enough apartment available,” she said. “The building piece is actually going to expand that universe and make a significant dent in the shelter system.”

Under the de Blasio “Turning the Tide” plan, the city has set out to create 90 new homeless shelters, while transitioning away from cluster sites and the use of commercial hotel units that have historically been poorly run.

Nicole McVinua, the director of policy at Urban Pathways, said there is a disconnect in the way the city is treating the homeless and housing crises, reflected in two separate policies that are siloed from one another. “The mayor has two different plans,” she said, referring to Turning the Tide and his housing initiative now known as Housing New York 2.0. “But really the affordable housing plan is the plan to end homelessness. Building shelters is not going to end homelessness,” she said.

Avery Cohen, a spokesperson for de Blasio, said in a statement, “We’ve seen tremendous progress under Turning the Tide and Housing New York—two plans that work to provide secure, affordable housing for all New Yorkers—and we’re wholly committed to taking that progress further.”

She added that the city had helped nearly 120,000 New Yorkers move from the shelter system into permanent homes, and said that the administration has also committed at least 10 percent of all the new affordable housing to be for the homeless.

Thursday’s sleep out drew many homeless and formerly homeless individuals, of all ages and races, some of whom delivered testimonials.

Charisma White said she had been homeless for three years until three months ago, when she moved into an affordable apartment in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.

Disabled, she possesses a Section 8 voucher. But even then, she said she was stymied by both discrimination and the challenge of finding low-income, affordable housing in a city that is nonetheless flooded with development.

“Buildings are going up, but they can’t understand that we can’t get a foot [into] the doorways of those houses that are going up,” she said.

The evening got underway with speeches, followed by a march. Most of those who came to the park did not intend to stay the entire night. Only a diehard few, including Greenberg, would brave the mosquitoes and rats. The park closes at 1 a.m., at which point the protesters would be forced to move to the sidewalks.

For some, the evening was a heartwarming but bittersweet reunion. More than 30 years after coming to his sleep out, Henry, 59, was back at City Hall Park. He now lives in Far Rockaway and works as a counselor at the Kingsboro Men’s Shelter in Brooklyn. This time, he learned about the event on Facebook.

“It’s emotional, but it’s real personal,” he said. “We’re still fighting the battle.”

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