Shelter gangs and a serial killer: Covid crime surge leaves New York’s unhoused more vulnerable

The Covid-19 pandemic has been brutally tough on America’s homeless.

Already difficult patterns of living, often just survival, were abruptly disrupted as the city emptied and shut down during spikes. Shelters and food pantries no longer functioned in a predictable fashion. Stores and 24-hour subways closed and the homeless were often and conveniently blamed for a wave of robbery and violence.

But last weekend, matters became bleaker still: the terrifying specter of a gunman on the prowl who over the last two weeks shot five homeless men sleeping on the streets of Washington DC and New York, killing one in each city.

Law enforcement officials described the man as a serial killer; the mayors of both cities offered a reward for information and issued advisories to get off the streets, a puzzling directive since the streets are home to the killers’ targets.

The alert was withdrawn by Tuesday when federal agents took 30-year-old Gerald Brevard into custody in south-east Washington. No motive has been given, and he has yet to be charged. But the casual nature of the extreme violence – captured on surveillance video – has underscored the vulnerability of tens of thousands of people for whom rest is a sporadic luxury and safety relative in a city that never sleeps.

“It took hours and tons of stress to make even five dollars” during the Covid shutdowns, said Sophie, a 25-year-old woman who has lived on the streets around Washington Square Park in Manhattan. “There was nothing open, no one on the streets, nothing in the garbage cans and you couldn’t even get water after eight during the curfew. It was scary and crazy.”

But it was also safer than now. In the 18 months since, as the city has lurched back to life, the metropolis has been hit by a crime spike not seen since the 1990s, including murder and assault, making policing a hot-button political issue.

In New York, Mayor Eric Adams has reinstated a controversial plainclothes “anti-gun unit” that targets illegal firearms and gang activity. Increased police presence in subways and trains, a refuge for the homeless, came after an Asian healthcare worker, Michelle Go, was pushed under a train by a man who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and hospitalized 20 times.

A number of other incidents followed, with eight people over a weekend in February punched, stabbed, slashed, robbed, beaten with a pipe, or threatened with a hatchet. Each further blurred the line between victim and victimizer.

“It has created the perception that homeless people are violent and dangerous, and that has become the focus,” said Charles King, CEO of Housing Works, a New York housing charity originally set up to help people living with HIV. Former governor Andrew Cuomo shut down the subway system at night during Covid, exacerbating a crisis for often seriously mentally ill New Yorkers.

“They said they were cleaning the subways, but they were as much doing to get people off the trains. But you can’t just shove people out of the system if you don’t have a place they’re willing to stay,” King says.

Advocates for the homeless say policing policies often fail to take into account their needs. The previous New York mayor, Bill de Blasio, re-designated several hotels in wealthy white neighborhoods as homeless shelters, triggering a backlash from property owners.

Sign left from a vigil after the recent shootings of unhoused New Yorkers. Photograph: Gina M Randazzo/Zuma Press Wire/Rex/Shutterstock

“There was an uproar, and the mayor responded by moving people back in congregate shelters, which are a health hazard,” King said. “It wasn’t a surprise to see that homeless in the shelters got Covid and died at a much higher rate than people in the rest of the population.”

At the same time, psychiatric beds were converted to Covid beds, psych and detox units merged, reducing resources as needs increased. Beat cops no longer make arrests for shooting up in public, a directive that follows city prosecutors’ guidelines. “Have some self-respect,” reasons Ice, an addict on 8th avenue in Midtown. “The cops don’t want central booking filling up if the courts are just going to turn them out again.”

The cost of the turmoil is self-evident. Ice’s girlfriend Ashley said 15 friends died of fentanyl overdose during the Covid pandemic, including a girl named Amber. “They didn’t even give her Narcan, they just threw a blanket over her.”

At the same time, the ingenuity of the street flourished. One woman took eight vaccine shots, in exchange for the city’s $100 vaccine incentive.

Shrugs, formerly a homeless street artist, said homelessness can be a matter of choice for some, albeit usually one among bad options. “Just because people have somewhere to live doesn’t mean it’s a home,” he said. “Some people like to camp out.” But, he concedes, once you are on the street “it is hard to get off”.

Shrugs got his name for his ability to amuse New Yorkers with a comedic shrug – “Free Shrugs, Laughs a Dollar.” “It’s harder than it looks,” he said. “It’s all about timing.” At his shrug-laugh peak, he was making $100 a day.

He began living on the street after his marriage failed and sold his art on Union Square, a business that collapsed when the city emptied. “Covid increased the desperation,” he said. He began recycling aluminum cans, establishing a depot on Forsythe Park on the Lower East Side, with a system of feeders. At one point, before the cops shut it down, he was moving 30,000 cans a day.

“If you’ve got a good shtick you can make good money on the street,” he said. “But keeping it going is hard. People get jealous. Sometimes you lose everything and have to start over.”

According to New York’s Coalition for the Homeless, homelessness in New York City has reached the highest levels since the Great Depression of the 1930s. But official figures gleaned from the municipal shelter system – 48,413 homeless people, including 15,057 homeless children in January – may only hint at the true figure.

Shelters are notoriously unsafe and, according to Shrugs, often infiltrated by gangs. Living on the streets in Manhattan is considered by many safer than the outer boroughs that are similarly troubled. But there are always new hazards. New York has a problem with rodent infestation, making sleeping in the parks unattractive.

“Giant rats,” said Sophie, “and they turn the sprinklers on.”

Robert, who is homeless, panhandles on a street in Manhattan.
Robert, who is homeless, panhandles on a street in Manhattan. Photograph: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Still, as New York authorities push for the city workers to return to offices, the issue remains live. Adams has ordered all people off the trains at the end of selected lines and wants police to enforce rules prohibiting stretching out on seats or sleeping on platforms.

“No more just doing whatever you want. No, those days are over. Swipe your MetroCard. Ride the system. Get off at your destination,” Adams said last month. “The system was not made to be housing, it’s made to be transportation.”

But it does not help the root problem.

“You can push people around, tear down encampments, but that’s just shuffling folks around and not fixing anything,” said Housing Work’s Charles King. “Part of the problem with the shuffling is that it creates the perception that homeless people are the menace, and not the people most in need of our compassion and care.”

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