Standing under a bridge at East 125th Street and Park Avenue in Harlem, Anthony Ralph, 47, said he’s at home, surrounded by other homeless people, blankets, dirty clothes, boxes and piles of their trash, including plastic sandwich bags, wrappers from Little Debbie Oatmeal Creme Pies and dozens of chicken bones.
The homeless men and women who reside under the bridge have built a community there, something unique for them in New York City, Mr. Ralph said. They depend on one another for safety, and they depend on the spot as a place where people can find them, so that they can get food, clothing, water and social work assistance, he said.
“This is different than being on the West Side or down on 115th,” Mr. Ralph said, referring to the level of safety under the bridge. “The people here, Lexington, Park and Madison, in this short region of space, they know us. They see us. If they see us plunked down on the side of the street, they know not to mess with us.”
He said the safety, services and small level of peace that the spot offers have been put in jeopardy by a New York Police Department initiative in which officers are forcing homeless people in the area to move from where they are throughout the day, separating them from one another and the only home they know.
One of the most acute consequences of the so-called move along policy, Mr. Ralph and other advocates for the homeless said, is how it disrupts the already chaotic lives of homeless people. If police officers uproot homeless people from their spot under the bridge, they are on the street and are vulnerable to harassment and attack.
“If you go a few blocks over to the West Side, those guys don’t know you over there,” Mr. Ralph said. “The kids harass you. You know, ‘It’s just a bum on the street. Let’s attack him.’ And we’re only a few blocks from here.”
Mr. Ralph, who has been homeless since December, is a member of Picture the Homeless, an advocacy organization. The New York Civil Liberties Union filed a complaint on May 26 on behalf of Picture the Homeless against the Police Department, stating that the department has been illegally targeting homeless people near East 125th Street.
Since June 2015, the Police Department has been ordering homeless people in the area to “move along” when they occupy public space, according to the complaint, filed with the New York City Commission on Human Rights. The complaint states the police actions are a violation of the city’s Community Safety Act, which prohibits police profiling based on housing status.
The Police Department and the mayor’s office defended the city’s treatment of the homeless in separate statements, saying that they would respond to the complaint once they received it.
“The City respects the rights of our homeless New Yorkers and has put in place a new comprehensive plan to reduce homelessness,” a city hall spokeswoman, Monica Klein, said.
“The N.Y.P.D.’s outreach services and interactions involving the homeless are carried out in a lawful and appropriate manner,” a Police Department spokeswoman said in an email.
“This is my big brother right here, my big brother,” Vincent Britt, 48, said under the Park Avenue bridge as he picked up the playing cards of another homeless man after they had fallen on the ground. “See, around here, we are all a part of a family. We don’t call each other ‘yo, yo, yo.’ We call ‘little brother,’ ‘big brother.’ If I see him hungry or see something wrong with him, I come and help him. If he goes somewhere else, he doesn’t get that. You’re an outcast.”
Mr. Britt said homeless people in the city are isolated, and he does not know of another area where such community exists among them.
“We show love here, and basically, you can’t get that anywhere else in New York City,” Mr. Britt said. “When they see that, they try to break people from each other and try to separate us.”
While there are other housing options like shelters, Mr. Ralph, echoing the words of many homeless people, said those options can be much worse than staying on the street.
“I’ve been to different shelters, and I know how horrendous they can be,” Mr. Ralph said. “You’ve got to constantly watch things or have somebody. It’s madness. The bathrooms in those places are horrendous. There will be deranged characters. Half of them I know from upstate.”
Pastor Shane Francis of the Redemption Praise Temple in Queens said that his church brings aid like food to homeless people and that programs like the “move along” initiative make it difficult.
“It makes it harder to reach them because we can’t serve them the way we want when they are all over the place,” Mr. Francis said.
“A lot of guys that are up here that are truly homeless,” said Jerry Ison, a 56-year-old homeless man. “Day in and day out, this is like their bread and butter.” He said he often hangs around the area under the bridge. “This is how they survive right in this area,” he said. “They have people that come and bring them food, clothes. These guys get fed.”
In some instances homeless people in the area have been forced to move without the little property they have, according to the complaint and Mr. Ralph.
“It’s frustrating for the simple fact that in some instances before they have had us move along without our property, and when you come back, your property is gone,” Mr. Ralph said. “That happened to a couple people here.”
Mr. Britt said the police’s effort makes him feel degraded.
“It’s cruel and it’s wrong,” Mr. Britt said. “We are human too, but we are homeless.”
“There’s no peace, because every time you turn around, they’re harassing you,” Mr. Ison added. “Everywhere they tell you to go. They come and tell you to move somewhere else.”
Standing on a stoop looking over the area under the bridge, Mr. Ralph said he’s proud of the complaint filed on behalf of Picture the Homeless, and he hopes to take back the dignity the “move along” effort strips away from him and his community.
“It’s aggravating, stressful, definitely unfair,” Mr. Ralph said. “If these same people were waiting for a bus, would you stop them? If these same people were on 42nd Street looking at one of the teletrons, would you tell them to disperse? But because they have their belongings with them, they’re homeless. So, it’s, ‘No, no, you guys have got to go.’”