In the summer of 2015, the city’s homeless population was nearing a peak of 60,000 — and 311 complaints about encampments and street people had risen nearly 60% since Mayor de Blasio took office.
Behind the scenes, the mayor and his top aides struggled to find a way to make it seem that he was on top of the situation without appearing to be inhumane, according to internal City Hall emails with Hizzoner’s outside advisers released Thursday.
The emails — made public under court order following a public records lawsuit by NY1 — make clear that de Blasio privately acknowledged that both he and his team were doing a terrible job at getting their message out on how they were trying to deal with this longstanding and difficult issue.
The rare moment of humility emerged in an email conversation on Aug. 20, 2015, after a top aide, Andrea Hagelgans, informed the mayor of a plan to have him visit a homeless encampment in the South Bronx shortly before the NYPD moved in and cleaned it out.
The mayor immediately seized on the possibility that such a move could seem insensitive.
“Our problem is that as a team we have all (led by me) absolutely sucked at laying down the predicate on this issue,” he confided. “If over the last two months we had set the record straight effectively, this effort re: the encampment would have seemed natural and smooth.
“The idea of an encampment event makes sense to me but done wrong it could really backfire,” he wrote. “The danger here is that it will be interpreted wrongly as an attack on the homeless — which I would never be party to.”
Aides had picked a site with 12 to 15 homeless individuals living in tenants amidst trash and needles off St. Ann’s Avenue. They suggested the mayor visit the site with a full press gaggle, then hold an on-topic talk with reporters.
“Just think we need to be showing action,” wrote Phil Walzak, who at the time was a de Blasio spokesman.
But the mayor’s then-press secretary, Karen Hinton, worried that it could create more problems than it solved by highlighting a policy that merely moves the homeless from one unpleasant place to another.
“What worries me is we have no way of moving the homeless off the streets, except to arrest them and put them through the jail, hospital, shelter, street cycle – which Giuliani and Bloomberg used to reduce their visibility,” she wrote.
“When it starts to get cold the problem just moves to the subways. We can arrest them there, but is that the plan? There may be a humane plan in the making about street homeless and I don’t know about it,” she wrote.
Hinton mentioned a past failed attempt to get the mayor and a NY1 reporter to accompany one of the city homeless outreach teams that try to convince street homeless to go into shelters each night.
“We tried to get him to do something about outreach with (NY1’s) Melissa Russo but he was nervous about something going wrong,” she wrote.
Finally, then-First Deputy Mayor Anthony Shorris weighed in, worrying that the encampment press event would wind up making de Blasio look like former Mayor Rudy Giuliani, whose street sweeps of homeless people generated outrage.
“If we’re planning an event to tell the world about some new tools we have in place to help homeless folks, then I think it’s fine,” Shorris wrote. “If what we are doing is ‘cracking down’ on groups of poor, mentally-ill people with nowhere else to go, then it’s not. And if all we are planning to do is chase troubled people from one place to another then we’re no better than Giuliani. I have not heard about any new programmatic initiatives here. Until we have them I don’t think we’re ready to go.”
In the end it was agreed that the tour would go forward, but with the mayor accompanied by only a Daily News reporter and photographer. No TV, no gaggle, no press conference.
That Sept. 2, de Blasio, in shirtsleeves, toured the site, walking through a squalid scene of trash and soiled tents. What he did not encounter, however, were actual homeless people.
They’d all cleared out, frightened off by the army of cops and sanitation workers who showed up before the mayor arrived.