On Monday morning, about a dozen people gathered at a small homeless encampment near Tompkins Square Park in Manhattan’s East Village to hold a memorial service for Jose Hernandez, known to the community as Joe, an encampment resident who had died just days earlier.
As the group of residents, activists, and other community members lit candles, hung flowers, and wrote loving messages to Hernandez in preparation for the service, roughly a dozen New York City Police Department officers and a handful of city Department of Sanitation workers approached the encampment’s lone standing tent and pile of belongings, which were sitting only a few feet away.
The mourners knew why the city had come: Since Mayor Eric Adams ramped up homeless encampment “cleanups” — colloquially known as sweeps — earlier this year, city workers have shown up to dismantle this encampment nearly 10 times, throwing away residents’ tents and belongings and sometimes arresting community members who protest the forcible relocation.
The sweeps are part of Adams’s efforts to compel unhoused people sleeping on the street to accept city services, like homeless shelters and safe havens. But many, including those at this East Village encampment, which they have dubbed Anarchy Row, have bad experiences in such facilities, which they describe as carceral and dangerous. They refuse the city’s services unless they include a private room, without a curfew, or a pathway to a permanent apartment, which the city often doesn’t offer. So the city comes, again and again to the same encampments, often trashing residents’ belongings.
Several dozen NYPD cops—including the Strategic Response Group—here to clear an encampment of four (4) tents near Tompkins Square. Arrests of residents and allies about to happen. A lot of threatening reporters with arrest as well. pic.twitter.com/gANRwVMX4D
— Chris Gelardi (@chrisgelardi) April 6, 2022
Among the cops who arrived Monday morning were those assigned to the local precinct, as well as several members of the new “business improvement deployment team,” a unit the NYPD quietly rolled out in March to police for homelessness and quality of life crimes in Manhattan shopping areas. According to the New York Post, the department formed the roughly 30-officer team after Midtown businesses complained about “deteriorating conditions” in their areas, and it responds to complaints directly from business improvement districts and community boards.
As the cops approached the encampment, community members asked them to hold off on the sweep. “Can you wait until the memorial is done?” someone asked Sergeant Michael Fox of the Ninth Precinct.
“You can go over there and take care of the memorial; I’m in the middle of doing something here,” Fox replied. “You’re impeding my police investigation. … Blow your candles and stuff and set up over there.”
Sanitation workers then threw the tent and belongings into a garbage truck, while community members accused the cops of interrupting what they hoped would be a peaceful service. “I’m not interrupting anything,” Fox responded. “You’re interrupting me.”
“Can you just show a little respect for the memorial?” someone asked. “When you show us respect, we’ll show respect,” Fox said.
As the sanitation workers continued to sweep, some community members yelled at the cops, some recorded on their cell phones, while others embraced one another, and some cried.
When asked about the incident, the NYPD emailed the following statement: “These are multi agency operations. The removal was away from the memorial. The memorial was not disturbed. The NYPD’s primary role is to ensure the safety of all involved.”
Hernandez’s partner, who asked to be identified as Emily, left the scene when the police moved in. When New York Focus caught up with her later that day, she was with her and Hernandez’s friend, mourning him on a park bench.
“I loved him so much,” she said. “He was a great man.” She said they were together for six years.
Emily said she was with Hernandez, who was 71, late last week when he began coughing up blood. She flagged down police, who got him to a hospital, but he died soon after. She assumes it was liver failure, but said Hernandez was cremated before she could get any information.
“I miss him with all my heart,” she said. “He helped a lot of people, including myself. We helped each other.”
After the police and sanitation workers cleared the encampment, community members resumed the memorial. Like Emily, Hernandez’s friends spoke of his generosity.
“When he had, you were never in need,” said Johnny Grima, an encampment resident. “If he had cigarettes, you had cigarettes; if he had food, you had food.”
Grima has been at the center of the many of the sweeps at Anarchy Row, having been arrested several times for refusing to leave his tent when police and sanitation have shown up. He spoke of Hernandez as a partner in that struggle. “Cold days we spent together here,” he said. “He got his stuff thrown out by them, too. He got scared by the police, too, just like the rest of us.”
“They have so many empty apartments, they could’ve given him one before he died,” Grima said. “He’s not the first old guy that died like this, out here without no help. Him and his wife and all the rest of us don’t deserve this. … We don’t want this to happen to poor people anymore.”
“We need to take care of people going through this situation, and get it better — with social services and workers who will give you affordable housing,” a woman named Gloria said to applause.
“He was a good person, a kind-hearted person,” Gloria later said of Hernandez, whom she knew for four years. Speaking of the sweeps, she called out Mayor Adams: “Would he do that to his family? If his family was outside, would he do it? No.”
Indeed, rather than pushing people to accept services, the constant sweeps take a heavy toll on encampment residents’ well-being, according to community members.
“It is abundantly clear watching Anarchy Row and other encampments that sweeps put an immense amount of stress on people,” said Judith Haider, who provides support to encampment residents and organizes mutual aid efforts. She said that the stress of the harassment, forced relocation, and losing one’s belongings leads to health crises — like Hernandez’s — deteriorated mental health, drug and alcohol relapses, and other problems.
“Any small crack in someone’s support system is split wide open by this,” she said.