NEW YORK (1010 WINS) — The city again swept the belongings of a homeless woman living on the street in the West Village Thursday — the tenth sweep in the past year, by her count — but the Department of Homeless Services still refuses to give her a housing voucher based on their inability to verify whether she’s homeless.
Crystal Vails has been repeatedly targeted by Mayor Eric Adams’ homeless encampment clearance program since it began in March 2022, but she continues to return to the same location in order to maintain contact with her community.
“I always come to the same place, because I know people over here,” she told 1010 WINS. “I know a lot of people in the neighborhood. I know a lot of people who help me out, give me money, like if I need food and stuff like that. Most of the time I don’t even ask, and they just give.”
1010 WINS is withholding the exact location of Vails’ encampment due to the concerns of neighbors who have had negative experiences with other West Village residents who strongly oppose the presence of homeless services and homeless people in the area.
Her strong ties to the neighborhood are clear. Camped out in front of an abandoned storefront, Vails chatted with employees at a nearby coffee shop and a neighboring smoke shop while waiting for the team of NYPD officers, sanitation workers and Department of Homeless Services outreach staff to force her to move her belongings.
A neighbor, who wasn’t involved in the group of activists present to support Vails during the sweep, bought her a large iced coffee. She knew Vails’ preferred order without asking.
“No matter where you go they’re still going to harass you,” said Vails . “So might as well stay here.”
May 1 is the 13-year anniversary of Vails losing her housing. She suffers from seizures and has problems with her knees and back.
In prior sweeps, the clearance teams confiscated and destroyed her shoes and clothing, according to Vails. When authorities came on Thursday, a group of activists and neighbors helped her pack her belongings, and she did not lose any personal effects.
Adams’ stated goal of the sweeps is to convince homeless people living on the street to move to shelters, but Vails has had bad experiences in the shelter system and refuses to return.
“Shelters are dangerous. They fight. They manipulate people. Even staff, they be stealing your money,” she said. “So it’s not safe. I’d rather stay on the street until I get housed.”
Vails also found her time in shelters to be unreasonably invasive, comparing the shelter system to prison.
“Some people don't want to go there and be on time to go to bed,” she said. “And you’re grown and they treat you like children.”
She’s not alone in choosing the streets over shelters.
A spokesperson for the mayor’s office said between March 2022 and March 2023, the city has carried out 5,255 sweeps. Only 156 homeless New Yorkers accepted DHS workers’ offer of a ride to a shelter during that same period.
Even for those who did agree to go to a shelter, the city has not published data on how many people stayed in the shelter system after doing so.
The sweep teams often encounter the same people across multiple sweeps. Adams’ office claims to have encountered 3,225 people over the course of 5,255 sweeps, implying that the same individuals are resetting up camp after sweeps.
The mayor’s office declined to comment on Thursday's sweep, but a statement provided to 1010 WINS in October for a story about the sweep program provides insight into the administration’s philosophy.
“For months, outreach teams have engaged constantly with New Yorkers living on the streets to offer them a clean, safe place to rest and the dignity that comes with it," said a spokesperson. "Mayor Adams has said since day one of this effort that we would do the work necessary to build trust and help people accept support, and that’s exactly what the administration is doing. The facts are clear that this administration’s approach is working.”
Staff with Urban Justice Center’s Safety Net Project are working on getting Vails a CityFHEPS housing voucher — a rent assistance program that anyone sleeping on the street should be eligible for.
Seth Frazier, a UJC staff member working with Vails, said DHS is refusing to grant her a housing voucher until the agency can verify she is street homeless.
“Right now it’s just going back and forth with DHS trying to be like ‘Look, obviously this person’s on the streets. You’ve had contact with her before. You’re posting sweeps on her. Why can’t you just give her the voucher?'” said Frazier. “You want her off the streets? Let’s get her the voucher, and let’s do that.”
Frazier speculated that DHS had not had enough outreach contact with Vails to verify she is homeless.
“It’s just bureaucracy,” he said. “If you’re on the street, you have to get contacted by DHS street outreach or a contracted street outreach team, and they have to contact you a certain amount of times on the street to prove you are actually on the street.”
It is standard procedure for DHS workers to be present for all sweeps. It’s unclear if the agency considers contact made during sweeps when considering eligibility for housing vouchers.
A Department of Social Services spokesperson replied to questions about Vails’ case by emphasizing DHS’ commitment to outreach.
“As part of our around-the-clock citywide outreach efforts, and related interagency efforts, DSS-DHS and our not-for-profit provider-partners are committed to ensuring that we are reaching every New Yorker in need of shelter or housing supports,” said the spokesperson. “We know that it can take multiple engagements to build trust, learn about the unique circumstances, challenges, and needs of each individual, and encourage them to accept services.”
“We remain undeterred in our efforts to making those important breakthroughs and ensuring that we are connecting some of our most vulnerable New Yorkers to the supports they need and deserve to get back on their feet and truly stabilize their lives over the long-term,” the spokesperson continued.
The agency did not respond to 1010 WINS’ request for comment on why outreach workers correctly identify Vails as homeless during sweeps but can’t verify her status for a housing voucher.
Vails criticized DHS for what she considers to be preference for the shelter system over housing programs.
“That’s what people need: housing,” she said. “If you can’t do it the right way, don’t do it at all. Because it don’t look like they have any training anyway besides how to harass people. You don’t do it like that. You be nice, kind. If you don’t know how to do that, then you don’t need to be on the street.”
Frazier also sees Vail’s case as emblematic of DHS’ failure to work with homeless New Yorkers to secure sustainable housing arrangements.
“Crystal has had countless encounters with street outreach and multiple sweeps by the city in the past year and should be on caseload, yet she still has not been offered the voucher,” he said. “This fact demonstrates DHS’ long-standing practice of only offering shelter placements to individuals experiencing street homelessness instead of permanent housing.”
When the sweep started on Thursday, the activists unfurled a sign decrying the clearance program and admonished police for the sweep.
DHS workers asked Vails whether she’d like to go to a shelter. Vails refused without missing a beat.
Police officers took pictures of the site, before the group present to support Vails helped her pack her belongings and sanitation workers removed two pieces of cardboard she was using underneath her bedding to make her sleeping area softer.
Arianis Diaz, a worker at a nearby smoke shop, came outside to ask the police why they kept coming back to clear the same encampment.
Diaz said she’s known Vails since she started working at the store in June 2022.
“She’s been nothing but great to me,” said Diaz. “She watches out for my store, she’s really nice. She helps me clean up from time to time.”
“We do get these cops that do have nasty attitudes,” she continued. “And they talk very disrespectful to her, like she’s a piece of garbage… They come. They harass her. They make it seem like no one’s in her corner. They just try to mistreat her because she’s on the streets.”