On July 25th, 2022, as a member of NY Docs, a coalition of diverse physician and healthcare advocates in the New York City area, Health Justice’s founder and ED, Dr. Oni Blackstock, shared remarks about the harms of street encampment sweeps to people impacted by homelessness and the need for safe and permanent supportive housing.
Below are Dr. Blackstock’s remarks that she delivered at the press conference hosted by NY Docs:
Good morning, Everyone!
I’m Dr. Oni Blackstock, founder and Executive Director of Health Justice, a racial and health equity consulting firm here in New York. I’m also a primary care and HIV physician and have had many patients who have experienced homelessness including living on the streets.
The administration says that its goal is to put NYers on a path to permanent housing and stability. They have couched this goal in a plan to improve “public safety”.
However, street encampment sweeps go a far way from that goal. Sweeps destabilize the lives of people on who are homeless harming their health and wellbeing of people. Sweeps are not leading to the stability or safe, accessible and permanent supportive housing that the administration claims to be its goal.
During sweeps, critically important medications are often thrown out—medications that people need to get through the day such as psychiatric medications and medication assisted treatment for opioid use disorder.
If people are unable to take meds for their chronic medical and psychiatric conditions, these conditions can worsen. For instance, loss of medication-assisted treatment can lead to withdrawal and increase substance use raising the risk for overdose or exposure to HIV and Hep C. Having one’s meds thrown out can increase in ED visits and hospitalizations.
Sweeps also make it harder for people who are homeless to connect with their health care providers because important items are destroyed during sweeps such as their phones and appointment reminder cards. Sweeps also make it more likely people will miss future appointments because they fear leaving their encampment sites because their items could be destroyed in yet another sweep.
Also, many people who are homeless are often disabled and require walkers, wheelchairs, and canes to get around—these have also been thrown out or destroyed during sweeps. It can be incredibly difficult for these items and medications to be replaced and can result in people being without their medications or assistive devices for weeks or even months.
The psychological stress of sweeps can be destabilizing. They increase stress, anxiety, and depressive symptoms. It’s inhumane to give someone 24 hours notice that the place they are living will be destroyed. Sweeps further compound the trauma that people who are homeless and living on the street have already faced. Involvement of the NYPD in sweeps ratchets up the risk of harm of the sweeps.
Sweeps can also be destabilizing to communities that people have created, networks of trust to support their health and wellbeing. Trust that allows people to leave their items and go to their medical appointments, that allow people to get help them if they overdose or if they need food.
They also shuffle people to new locations, which can be hazardous, isolated, less visible, places where people have less access to outreach workers and needed services.
The current status quo is clearly not working.
Many people who are homeless and living on the street have tried the shelter system especially congregate shelters. I know that from my experience talking to my patients, many have shared that they did not feel safe there and that their needs are not met- why send people back to somewhere where they feel unsafe and where their needs go unmet?
Congregate settings also ramp up the risk of getting COVID19 especially with BA.5—a hypertransmissable variant—and now we are dealing with the monkeypox public health emergency which could potentially spread easily in these settings.
Even if getting folks into shelters were a reasonable measure of success, these efforts are failing. Only a small proportion of people have actually taken the city up on its offer of housing in the shelter system. Many people remain unhoused and there are not currently enough safe haven and stabilization beds and few permanent housing options.
We are in the midst of housing and mental health crises.
The administration should be focused on permanent housing solutions and ensuring people experiencing homelessness get the health and social services that they need. We know that these both decrease homelessness and improve health outcomes for people who are homeless.
We need policies that support the health and safety of people who are homeless instead of policies that increase policing and criminalize poverty.