New York City’s homeless population has grown by a third in recent years — from about forty thousand in 2012 to over sixty thousand today. Alongside this increase, a rising number of homeless individuals reject the dehumanizing conditions of the shelter system, living instead on the city’s streets and in its public spaces.
The city’s response has been aggressive.
Mayor Bill de Blasio supports these tactics and pushes rezoning initiatives in the low-income neighborhoods that threaten to displace residents who are already most likely to become homeless.
This is not new for the city. Homelessness shot up in the 1970s, and by the late 1980s thousands of homeless New Yorkers were finding shelter in the streets, subways, and transportation centers, particularly in Manhattan.
Media and political commentators were so alarmed by public homelessness that they commonly referred to New York City as “New Calcutta.” In response, transportation officials, the police, municipal officials, and business interests took aim at the homeless individuals who seemed to represent physical barriers to the economic revitalization of 1980s New York.
The ramifications of this thirty-year-long battle against homeless individuals are visible today, both in the continued refusal to meaningfully address the root causes of homelessness and the persistence of “broken windows” policing tactics.
The premise of broken windows is simple: small signs of “disorder” — panhandling, vandalism, public drinking — signal an atmosphere of lawlessness that promotes more dangerous criminal behavior. To prevent crime, the police must aggressively repress these behaviors.
Transportation officials first officially applied broken-windows policies in predominantly white neighborhoods. African American men, and homeless people especially, were perceived as a threat to city spaces that were once again attracting white middle- and upper-class populations after years of suburban flight.
In the decades since, broken windows has been at the heart of a broad range of police initiatives, like stop-and-frisk and the CompStat-fueled arrests in African American communities. The unhinged police response to Eric Garner’s sale of “loosies” — responsible for his suffocation and death — was simply broken windows taken to its logical conclusion.
Broken windows has rightly become synonymous with aggressive policing in black and Latino neighborhoods. But its history highlights a deeper purpose: protecting the economic value of “revitalizing” city spaces.
From the start broken windows has been inseparable from policies to promote economic development and gentrification. The policy has not only accelerated the criminalization of people of color, but also worked hand in hand with pro-development schemes that make more and more New York City neighborhoods un-affordable.
Recovery at the Expense of the Poor
New York City in the mid-1980s was a far cry from the place it was a decade earlier.
The city nearly declared bankruptcy in the mid-seventies when it faced the worst economic conditions since the Great Depression. But by the end of the decade, as real estate prices skyrocketed, economic recovery appeared on the horizon.
In 1978, Ed Koch was elected mayor, and his administration epitomized the pro-development vision emerging with urban leaders nationwide.
Under prior administrations, Koch explained, “the thrust of city policy was to make this a town where business and economy were of less importance than the welfare syndrome.” He advocated a reversal of this equation, aggressively pursuing policies that would make housing, parks, and entire neighborhoods more attractive to wealthy residents, tourists, businesses, and developers.
Koch was hardly alone in this pursuit. The officials charged with running New York’s transportation system and major transit centers also aimed to attract more affluent customers.
Like the rest of the city, the transportation system had only recently started to recover from a twenty-year decline. In the mid-1980s, for example, New York’s graffiti-covered, refuse-filled trains — a national symbol of urban decline — underwent a fleet-wide renovation and repainting campaign.
Meanwhile, transit officials invested in major renovations of the main transportation centers of the city: Port Authority, Grand Central, and Penn Station (all in the midtown Manhattan business district). Officials hoped to attract wealthy residents and tourists flooding into the city for the first time in decades.
Nearby corporations were enthusiastic supporters. Along with real estate developers they formed the Grand Central Partnership (GCP) and worked with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Metro-North on an extensive revitalization plan for the terminal that included bringing in high-end restaurants and retailers.
But these plans ran headfirst into the homeless epidemic.
As one 1988 Port Authority report put it, in the five years prior, public transit agencies in the New York metropolitan area had invested over $23 billion to make transportation hubs “cleaner,” “better lit,” and tenanted by new “stores and restaurants.” But their “modernization effort” had been matched by “a simultaneous… movement on a different track”: the growing homeless population. As Peter Stangle, president of Metro-North, declared, the agency was not renovating the “terminal for the purpose of accommodating homeless.”
The demographics of New York’s homeless — overwhelmingly black and male — gave these concerns particular urgency. Poor black males had long been associated with criminality and danger and, just as terrifying to some, declining property values.
Objections to the homeless population never directly mentioned race, but media articles on the “problems” of subways and transportation facilities often coupled homelessness and crime. And while they could rarely prove that homeless people were actually the ones committing crimes, newspaper articles consistently linked the mere presence of homeless people with actions like drug dealing and vandalism. Because black males are overwhelmingly blamed for these kinds of crimes, the media implicitly preyed on racist fears.
To many officials, including those in the Koch administration, the stakes of ensuring the “revitalization” of these spaces were greater than attracting new developments and affluent shoppers to midtown terminals.
Protecting these spaces would ensure the continued improvement of the entire city’s economy. As Stephen Berger, executive director of the Port Authority put it:
[There are] 600,000 travelers, commuters, visitors, business people from here and abroad who pass through our portals every day and see the homeless. Who will want to relocate a business here? Try to induce workers to come here, to live and work and move here? You can’t call this a homeless issue. It is much broader. It is an economic and survival issue for the region — as much and, in many ways, similar to the fiscal crisis of the last decade.
But city and transportation officials struggled to find effective policies for clearing these areas of homeless people. For example, they began to apply a 1930s-era loitering law to justify police removal, before the New York Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional.
Without the ability to arrest homeless people simply for loitering, transportation officials found new tactics.
Today it is common for public spaces to be designed to discourage the homeless — think of how nearly all city benches have partitions to prevent sleeping — but this did not begin in earnest until the mid-eighties.
In Grand Central, for example, Metro-North removed all but one set of benches to prevent congregating and sleeping. In Port Authority, officials replaced wooden seats with flip seats that “require so much concentration to balance that sleeping or even sitting for long is impossible.”
But these initiatives failed for the same reason homeless people still congregate in public spaces today: they have nowhere else to go.
Despite ongoing efforts by homeless organizers and advocates, the municipal government provided few options for homeless individuals besides shelters. Shelters were (and still are) foreboding places — “a sure taste of what hell will be like,” as one man described them — where individuals were likely to encounter violence, cramped spaces, and inhumane treatment by staff and security.
Koch administration officials purposely maintained these paltry and unpleasant conditions, believing that to do otherwise would create a voluntarily homeless class of lower-income New Yorkers and even draw individuals from surrounding areas.
By the end of the eighties, transportation officials had had enough. The persistence of homeless individuals in public spaces led officials at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority — which oversaw subways, buses, and major commuter rails — to hire George Kelling who, along with James Q. Wilson, was responsible for theorizing broken windows.
The MTA wanted Kelling to develop policies that would eliminate homeless people, panhandlers, and other perceived forms of “disorder.” The task gave Kelling an opportunity to test the theoretical formulations of his theory with the help of the MTA police.
He unveiled the results the next year in a campaign called Operation Enforcement, adopted wholesale from the broken windows playbook. Operation Enforcement required MTA police to enforce a zero-tolerance policy against panhandling, lying down, sleeping (or otherwise taking up more than one seat), entering unauthorized areas, littering, and drinking alcoholic beverages.
The MTA covered each subway station entrance and platform and every one of the 6,300 subway cars with posters announcing the policy. It distributed 1.5 million pamphlets that listed the prohibited activities that would lead to arrest, fines, or ejection.
Panhandlers and homeless people were the primary targets of Operation Enforcement. The policy treated behaviors associated with homeless people the same as actions that directly impacted MTA revenues like turnstile-hopping. “One does not have to be a mental giant to see where this is intended — to rid the subways of the homeless,” noted William McKechnie, president of the Transit Police Benevolent Association.
Kelling justified the new policy by promoting the “theory of crime causation” that underpinned his broken windows theory. Lumping together acts like holding out a cup for spare change and sleeping with turnstile-hopping and vandalism, he claimed that all of these behaviors create
the sense that things are out of control and that nobody cares. These circumstances, in turn, embolden persons so-inclined to be increasingly obstreperous — even aggressive and criminal. As a consequence, such behavior threatens the viability of the subway system by generating high levels of fear in the passengers, thereby discouraging use of the system.
Kelling also conflated poverty and pathology, which justified increasingly harsher — even carceral — measures.
In testimony Kelling made against legal challenges to the policy, he defended singling out panhandlers. Many, he claimed, were “not homeless or needy persons; they are people who exploit the confines of the system to intimidate others into giving them money.”
Simultaneously, however, he acknowledged that many panhandlers were in fact homeless and destitute people. But they should not be allowed to stay in the transit system or beg “for their own well-being” because they were “males who have a lengthy history of alcohol and drug abuse and mental illness.”
Several studies conducted at the time found that many homeless individuals who lived in public spaces were not struggling with mental illness or addiction. No matter. The MTA’s broken windows-informed Operation Enforcement remained in place, and even inspired other transportation officials.
In Port Authority, officials plastered 250 posters throughout the bus terminal announcing Operation Alternative, a new policy in which anyone loitering, panhandling, drinking, or sleeping would be evicted from the terminal, even in winter.
Officials hired 140 new police officials to enforce the policy. Within a year, Port Authority kicked out nearly 7,000 homeless persons. As one Port Authority police officer explained: “No matter how cold it is outside, if the person is sitting or lying on the floor — no matter how harmless they are — we have to tell them to leave or lock them up.”
Not coincidentally, shortly after Operation Alternative began, Port Authority officials announced a long-delayed $90 million renovation plan to improve the terminal’s commercial offerings and bring new “restrooms, brighter lighting and signs, and the elimination of many small open spaces where homeless people gather.”
Together, hard line policing tactics and extensive renovations transformed the terminal. One mid-1990s New York Times article described the old Port Authority as “filled with homeless people” and marked by “tawdriness.” It went on: “Today’s scene is completely different. Nicely dressed crowds patronize clean, well-lighted shops resembling a bustling suburban shopping mall, not a beleaguered urban outpost.”
The Midtown business district’s increasingly powerful private sector also bankrolled broken windows policing of the homeless.
The GCP, for example, helped fund a private security force led by a former assistant police chief to increase aggressive policing measures against homeless people and other “undesirable” individuals in the area.
Similar efforts spread to the eight-block area around Penn Station, where private businesses funded an even larger security team to keep the “undesirables” away. Meanwhile, area banks entered into contract with the GCP to prevent homeless people from residing in and around ATM vestibules.
In 1995, the GCP would lose over half a million dollars in federal grants when news broke that they brutalized numerous homeless individuals in their efforts to drive them out of ATM vestibules and public areas.
Yet, while the transportation officials’ bullying came under fire from homeless individuals and advocates, broken windows-style policing not only persisted but expanded.
Indeed, William Bratton, whom Kelling personally recruited as transit police chief in 1990, instructed transit officers to eject all panhandlers — even those simply extending a cup — without warning and regardless of the weather. Within a year, subway ejections rose thirteen times.
Homeless people were offered few viable alternatives for a place to sleep, let alone a path out of homelessness.
Many hoped David Dinkins would contest these policies when he became mayor in 1990. Not unlike de Blasio, David Dinkins ran as a liberal, campaigning against punitive responses to homelessness and for more permanent and low-income housing.
But unlike de Blasio, Dinkins faced a major economic recession that swept over the city soon after he took office. Claiming that the city’s continued economic slump prevented him from doing more, Dinkins did not fulfill his campaign promises to New York’s homeless individuals. He even finally caved to pressure from transportation officials, calling Bratton’s rigid enforcement of broken windows necessary to “reclaim the subway system.”
The belief that broken windows had “successfully” solved the subways and transportation centers’ homeless problem would justify the implementation of the policy citywide.
Rudolph Giuliani, who took office as mayor in 1994, appointed William Bratton as New York’s Chief of Police. Bratton brought broken windows policing out of the subway tunnels and onto every street in the city.
The vast acceleration of these punitive measures did reduce the visibility of homelessness. But the total number of homeless people rose over twenty percent to nearly thirty thousand.
Today — just fifteen years later — the number of homeless New Yorkers has doubled.
Ironically, the broken windows policing that was first applied to evict, hide, and shame the homeless population has helped drive its continued growth by contributing to the city’s ongoing affordability crisis.
Broken windows policing has not only reinforced the long history of criminalization and aggressive policing against African Americans, but also buttressed municipal development policies — tax abatements, rezoning, developer incentives — that aid gentrification.
The history of broken windows reveals that these policies work in tandem. They disproportionately harass and imprison people of color, while simultaneously remaking neighborhoods for the city’s affluent.
And despite de Blasio’s “tale of two cities” message, he favors the unabashedly pro-gentrification policies of prior administrations and — as his appointment of Bratton as police commissioner makes clear — aggressive policing tactics.
As Picture the Homeless recently pointed out, “if we’re going to truly address homelessness,” politicians will need “the courage to challenge the NYPD and the real estate interests that control so much of city politics.” Until then New York City’s growing homelessness crisis will continue unabated.