The New York Civil Liberties Union and Picture the Homeless today announced a settlement on behalf of three homeless New Yorkers who were kicked awake and whose belongings were thrown into a trash compactor by police and sanitation workers. In the settlement, New York City will provide compensation for the personal items police illegally seized and discarded, which included social security cards, birth certificates and medication. Today’s announcement closely follows the anniversary of the day the NYCLU filed the notices of claim and launched a campaign, #TheThingsWeCarry, asking for humanity in the treatment of homeless New Yorkers.
“Homeless people deserve to be treated with dignity like all New Yorkers, and the city acknowledged that it had no right to treat their few possessions like garbage,” said NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman. “It’s important that these three people were compensated, but some of the personal items they lost were worth far more to them than just their monetary value. We will continue to remind the city and the NYPD that everyone has a right to be treated with basic dignity and that homelessness is not a crime.”
In the early hours of October 2, 2015, three homeless New Yorkers, Floyd, Timmy and Jesus were sleeping in a small area partly sheltered from the rain in East Harlem when they were woken up by police with flashlights and sanitation workers in white hazmat suits. They were told they were no longer welcome. The three began to gather up their belongings along with the other homeless people at the location. But before they could do so, sanitation workers seized their personal possessions and threw them in a sanitation truck with operating trash compactors. The three tried to convince the officers to let them keep their belongings, but they were ultimately forced to watch as their possessions were destroyed.
The illegal destruction of their property was caught on video, which the NYCLU obtained via a Freedom of Information Law Request and released when the notices of claims were filed in December, 2015. The footage shows homeless people being kicked awake and watching as their possessions are dragged away in front of them and thrown in a trash compacter.
“I'm grateful that the city is paying me back for the things the cops stole from me because I'm homeless, I need new shoes and a warm jacket, and my disability benefits aren't enough,” said Floyd Parks, NYCLU client and member of Picture the Homeless, an organization of homeless New Yorkers. “With this settlement, we got our foot in the door. People will know how we've been treated and that the cops should stop kicking around and abusing homeless people."
“It is only fair that the city has agreed to compensate our clients for destroying what few possessions they had,” said NYCLU Staff Attorney, Jordan Wells. “Rather than having to pay out individual claims like those of our clients, the city should move away from targeting and criminalizing the homeless. This incident underscores the need for the NYPD to implement consistent policies to ensure officers treat homeless residents with professional courtesy and respect.”
The NYCLU’s three complainants, all members of Picture the Homeless, lost some of the most valuable possessions they owned. Floyd lost his birth certificate, social security card, blood pressure medication, inhaler, clothing, a list of important names and phone numbers including shelters, and a silver cross necklace. Jesus lost his birth certificate, social security card, clothing, jacket, shopping cart and personal hygiene products. Timmy lost his birth certificate, social security card, shoes, jackets, a Steelers jersey and personal hygiene products.
The officers’ actions are part of a disturbing pattern in which the NYPD effectively criminalizes homelessness. The NYCLU filed a complaint in May of last year on behalf of Picture the Homeless urging the New York City Commission on Human Rights to investigate the NYPD’s practice of forcing homeless people in Harlem to “move along” when they have not violated any laws but are simply present on streets, sidewalks and in other public spaces. The NYCLU argues that the NYPD’s actions violate the Community Safety Act, which prohibits “bias-based profiling,” including targeting people based on their housing status.
"I'm glad that the city is acknowledging that something bad happened,” said Jesus Morales, NYCLU client and member of Picture the Homeless. “I'm not an animal. None of us are. For what I suffered, and what hundreds of people are suffering every day, the city needs to do more to stop these out-of-control cops.”