By Alan Cohen
Greenwich Village is experiencing an explosion of homelessness and homeless encampments that surpasses anything longtime residents can recall. It is part of the chaos that has descended on this neighborhood, which includes stabbings, muggings, a shooting, and closed streets that house nightly parties which cause strewn garbage. Residents face difficulties when trying to navigate into their buildings past the drunken partiers. Restaurant sheds block traffic, sanitation and emergency vehicles, and have caused an exploding rat population. These and other grievances are signs of what the sociologist Robert Merton referred to as “anomie” or chaotic normlessness.
But this article will focus on the homeless and their encampments.
Two days ago, while walking on Sixth Avenue from Washington Place to Eighth Street, I was struck by not only the presence of homeless people begging for (or sometimes demanding) money, but also by a number of encampments of homeless people, complete with beds, other furniture, and dirty laundry spread out on the sidewalk, making it dicey to navigate through or past them. One man had his pants down around his ankles while he was defecating on the sidewalk. There were people shooting up what I assume to be heroin. These encampments were on both sides of the street of both blocks where I was walking.
I called the Sixth Police Precinct to report the situation and was told that there was nothing the police were empowered (i.e. allowed) to do: I should call 311. When I did that I was told I should call the police precinct. I explained my conversation with the police, and filed a report. Soon after receiving notification that the report was officially filed, I received another notice stating that the case was closed and referred to the DHS (Department of Homeless Services—more on this later). I also wrote a letter to Corey Johnson’s office; I received no response.
I posted a couple of photos and this story to the Nextdoor list and was surprised by the outpouring of responses. Hundreds of people expressed how upset they were by these conditions—both for the residents of the neighborhood and for the homeless. They also expressed their frustration with the lack of response from elected officials, the police, and the well-funded efforts to combat homelessness (that seem not only to have failed to improve the situation, but have also been unable to prevent its tremendous increase). Some shared that their 311 reports were closed summarily, and that they’d witnessed people from DHS offering housing to some homeless people who turned them down. One reported that a DHS worker was stabbed by a homeless person.
These homeless people are not a monolithic group. They include mentally ill (psychotic) people (yes, I can diagnose because I am a psychotherapist), drug addicts, criminals, and people who are victimized by larger forces. The hundreds of those writing in response to my posting were largely not attacking the homeless as people, but expressing fear and disgust about the conditions that result from their being allowed to take up residence on our sidewalks. One man spoke about the distress of having to walk through these encampments with his four-year-old and two-year-old children. Some spoke of having been accosted and threatened. Others expressed disgust at having to walk on sidewalks filled with human feces. All expressed feelings of hopelessness about these circumstances being addressed by elected officials. But after receiving no response from Corey Johnson’s office, I wrote to two community board members—who also did not respond.
There has been a horrible pandemic which has affected us all. But there has also been a lack of ensuring the basic needs that a community has for order and safety, which allows people to go about their lives and allows commerce and tourism to thrive. Our experience is that our elected officials have not only failed to provide for these basic needs, but have actively interfered with the police establishing some baseline order.
In the late 1980s, when the city was experiencing a crack epidemic and high crime rates (resulting in people leaving the city for the safer suburbs, businesses leaving, and property values plummeting), a local policeman told me he had stopped arresting people because the Dinkins administration ordered the immediate release of anyone brought in. This week I was told the same thing by a policeman. Residents in this neighborhood are feeling disregarded and frustrated with the lack of social order. People who choose to live in Greenwich Village tend to be “liberals” who enjoy the vibrancy and “out-of-the-box-ness” of the Village, with its long history of artistic and political expressiveness. But they want to live in an area that is safe, where they don’t have to fear going out with their children, where they don’t have to walk past people shooting up or defecating on sidewalks. We need some response from those who make the laws, and who enforce the laws—not to be oppressive, but to establish a baseline where the community can thrive.