Opinion: NYU students should do more to help New York City’s unhoused population

Mayor Eric Adams’ recent campaign to ramp up sweeps of unhoused encampments makes it more important than ever for NYU students to take the initiative and support their neighbors in need.


Manasa Gudavalli

Banners are hung at Anarchy Row in the East Village during a rally organized by Brooklyn Eviction Defense and the Rent Refusers Network in April. (Staff Photo by Manasa Gudavalli)

Steph Wittstruck, Contributing Writer

Amid Mayor Eric Adams’ ongoing aggressive campaign against unhoused New Yorkers, the principles of mutual aid are more relevant than ever. NYU students hold a unique position in the Lower Manhattan and downtown Brooklyn communities,  since we are more likely to have the resources to help out. We have a responsibility to incorporate community involvement into each of our busy schedules and to assist our unhoused neighbors. Volunteering with local mutual aid organizations and showing up to sweeps are great ways to start. 

The Department of Sanitation has planned two sweeps today, May 4, at the same time in two locations in Manhattan that have already endured several violent sweeps this year. If you have time today, head to Ninth Street and Avenue B or 38 Eldridge St. to help with sweep defense. Sweeps generally begin around 7 a.m. and can last all day. Be sure to follow the lead of other sweep defenders and prioritize the needs of unhoused folks at both sites. 

Upon taking office, Adams has ramped up the city’s campaign against unhoused New Yorkers. During homeless encampment sweeps, the city sends out sanitation workers, police officers and outreach workers. Oftentimes, they destroy and throw away people’s belongings. Adams has painted the initiatives as crucial to the city’s post-pandemic recovery, relying on perceptions of compromised safety, to clear 239 encampments in just 12 days. These sweeps continued through early April and are nothing short of traumatizing and violent. 

Adams has defended the sweeps as a way of preserving the dignity of unhoused New Yorkers. But how does forcibly throwing away people’s belongings preserve their dignity? Not to mention the time and resources that are going toward the sweeps that ultimately result in further trauma for unhoused folks

Often, the city points to shelters and safe havens as alternatives to these dramatic standoffs, but the city’s shelters are known among the unhoused community for their horrendous conditions. As one unhoused community member, Sinthia, said at a demonstration at Tompkins Square Park, “housing is the solution to homelessness.” 

Many unhoused folks prefer staying on the streets over going to shelters. The Coalition for the Homeless’ Policy Director Jacquelyn Simone said, You don’t have to do heavy-handed policing to convince someone to come in off the streets if you’re actually offering them an option that is safer and better than the streets.” So while Adams’ proposal to invest $171 million in shelters and outreach efforts might make for good optics, there is a more direct, tangible solution to the unhousedness crisis —  affordable housing. 

In a survey conducted by the Coalition for the Homeless, 42% of respondents were once rent-paying tenants who fell into financial difficulties that led to eviction. Homelessness is not a far-off issue; many of us are at risk of being pushed onto the streets due to unforeseen financial circumstances. Living paycheck to paycheck means that those unhoused folks in the northwest corner of Washington Square Park aren’t as alien as some students may believe. 

Unhoused people are being targeted right now, so New Yorkers must offer support in every way possible. In response to this pressing issue, several local organizations have been doing incredible work to directly combat the violent sweeps:

Sweep Alert NYC

Rent Refusers United

Washington Square Park Mutual Aid

North Brooklyn Mutual Aid 

Brooklyn Eviction Defense 

We the People NYC

The People’s Bodega NYC

Home is a Human Right

West Village Mutual Aid 

Cine Móvil NYC 

East Village Mutual Aid (currently on hold)

It is important to acknowledge that NYU students from around the world are just as responsible as those from the New York area to be civilly engaged. It is important to understand that we are there simply as support and a body in the line of defense. Doing this work must come with an attitude of centering the needs of unhoused people. Organizers and community members typically come from all walks of life and are extremely welcoming. 

On the other hand, it is also critical to note that you as an individual have the authority to constantly evaluate your level of involvement with different organizations and to hold them to a standard you define on your own accord. Make decisions for yourself and constantly question everything.

At the end of the day, there is no excuse for NYU students to not be more involved in the most pressing issues in New York City. If we are going to occupy this space and study topics like solidarity and transformative justice, we, the student body, ought to act on these tenets. There are infinitely more groups beyond those listed above doing amazing work in this city and laboring for an equitable future. So I leave you with one question: What can you do right now that aligns with your political values? It’s time for NYU students to practice what they preach.

WSN’s Opinion section strives to publish ideas worth discussing. The views presented in the Opinion section are not the views of the Washington Square News. 

Contact Steph Wittstruck at [email protected]