color photograph of a person wearing an oversized jacket and black beanie hat sitting on a sidewalk and holding out a cup as people walk by. a sign at his feet reads "i'm hungry"
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Housing advocates and civil liberties watchdogs in Albany, New York, say the City Council is waging war on poor and unhoused populations by considering proposed resolutions that discourage direct financial assistance and change how police enforce loitering laws.

The resolutions, advocates say, are part of a larger attempt by the city to show a stern response to issues of homelessness and poverty but ultimately show a lack of willingness to reckon with growing inequality. In context, advocates say these resolutions also highlight the failures of state leaders to provide systemic change to combat equally large problems with housing affordability and stability.

“More and more people are losing their housing, and more and more people are finding this economy is impossible to live in,” said Canyon Ryan, the executive director of United Tenants of Albany. “Especially low-income folks who were already poor before the pandemic.”

Results from Albany County’s point-in-time count, a yearly survey organized by local agencies nationwide to quantify homelessness in their respective areas, show the number of unhoused people is at the highest since at least 2020. Additionally, a market analysis from Zillow shows landlords have raised rents on average by almost $100 compared to last year.

One of the resolutions, tabled by the City Council on Sept. 7 after a lengthy public comment section, discouraged giving money to panhandlers, instead directing individuals to donate to nonprofit organizations that provide assistance with homelessness and health care solutions, including the county Department of Social Services. 

Melanie Trimble, the director of the Capital Region chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement the resolution is “cruel.”

“Public spaces are public for everyone, no matter the size of your wallet,” she noted. “Discouraging Albany residents from interacting with or assisting their community members who are panhandling is inhumane and cruel. Albany should come together with generosity and compassion to help people who are unhoused, not shun, criminalize, or push those in need out of public view.”

Similar laws in other parts of the country have been successfully challenged as violations of people’s First Amendment rights. In 2021, two unhoused men in suburban Chicago won a judgment from a federal judge, which also repealed a statewide law prohibiting panhandling in public roadways. Both men had been repeatedly ticketed by Illinois State Police for solicitation.

Justin Harrison, a senior policy counsel for NYCLU, said that while the resolution in Albany does not infringe on individuals’ First Amendment rights, it is meanspirited.

“If the city were to come out and issue a mandate, or an actual enforceable restriction, rather than just a wag of the finger in an ordinance like this … that would be unconstitutional,” Harrison said.

Albany City Councilmember Gabriella Romero said she is worried the resolution’s passage could open the door to more legislative action against panhandlers.

“If this legislation was to pass tonight, that would have given a path to further explore criminalization of panhandling,” she said. “I hope this is a very clear message to the community, the city of Albany, and other councilmembers that the community will come out to oppose that legislation.”

Romero and Ryan both said there is a mostly unified front behind anti-panhandling legislation, including at the mayor’s office.

Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan has supported the resolution, noting that it would help address major issues in the city.

“We are seeing across the city a number of challenges. We have so many resources,” she said at a committee meeting days before the council tabled the resolution. “We have seen a huge increase in the number of SeeClickFix complaints and concerns … when it comes to needles, homelessness.” 

Sheehan said other cities had implemented similar resolutions in attempts to funnel resources to services providers.

“Yes, we need more beds. Yes, we need more of everything, and we also have more than many, many other communities,” she added.

Loitering ordinance

The council’s Public Safety Committee also considered an ordinance at a Sept. 11 meeting changing how loitering laws are enforced. Ordinance 5.21.23 strikes down a provision in local law that states that a law enforcement officer has to observe a disturbance to have probable cause to charge someone with loitering.

Harrison said this will embolden residents who use reporting tools like SeeClickFix to report unhoused people to law enforcement. Under the new ordinance, he said, law enforcement could use citizen reports to engage and possibly punish unhoused residents but added that would all be up to how the ordinance is applied if approved by the council.

Sheehan has previously said SeeClickFix reports for unhoused people are on the rise. An analysis of SeeClickFix Albany data performed on Sept. 25 shows 15 out of the most recent 100 complaints could be classified as loitering, homeless encampments, outside drug use, or overt drug trafficking.

“This would … establish a broader standard and make it easier for the police to charge loiterers with loitering or to charge ordinary people who were just out and about in public,” Harrison said. “It encourages this weird snitch culture that seems to be getting popular with minor infraction enforcement where it’s just like, everybody take it upon yourselves to report on your fellow members of the public, including people who might just be experiencing hard times or are down on their luck. There is a meanness to it.”

For Ryan, the ordinances the City Council is considering are anti-poverty and anti-homelessness. 

“The message [the city is sending] is clear: Get out of the city,” he said. “We don’t want you here. We can’t help you, but there’s underfunded social services agencies that probably can.” 

Councilmember Owusu Anane, who introduced the proposed ordinance to strip down enforcement of loitering laws and co-sponsored the resolution to dissuade individuals from donating to panhandlers, could not be reached for comment. 

At the Sept. 7 meeting, Councilmember Derek Johnson, who represents the city’s Second Ward, said he appreciated seeing the community response to the resolution and acknowledged the city needs to provide better services to its residents.

“We have redlining in humans right now … Even before 10 years [ago], they were taking services away from our community. When you take services away from the community, what do you expect the result to be?” Johnson said. “We need to take a harder look at what’s actually going on in our city and expect better results.”

How the state has influenced local sentiments on poverty

There is a singular event in Ryan’s mind that has influenced Albany’s move toward legislation that is harsher on unhoused people, as well as harsher enforcement of existing laws. He believes the killing of Jordan Neely in the New York City subway back in May spurred local business leaders to action.

“He was murdered for being aggressive and being animatedly poor,” Ryan said. He added he heard from members of the Albany City Council shortly after Neely’s death that public displays of poverty were ruining area businesses.

“I find it very alarming that less than two weeks after a man was murdered by some white veteran vigilante, the business community is suddenly talking about the same issues,” he said. “Not in how to address it affirmatively, but how to punitively address being homelessness or in poverty.”

Ryan also said the New York legislature’s failure to address converging housing crises in the state is contributing to the anti-poverty sentiment in Albany.

The state legislative session, which ended in June, yielded no large-scale housing solutions after advocates demanded baseline eviction protections, programs that would make affordable housing more abundant, and measured public control over rent hikes. Gov. Kathy Hochul’s proposed housing package, which included a commitment to building 800,000 housing units, also stalled and was not included in the state budget negotiated in the spring.

“I think the failures of the New York State Legislature to do anything on housing … while we’re seeing an increase in homelessness is resulting in real vitriol for the people who need housing the most and also on advocates who are saying we need tenant protections,” Ryan said. “It’s a pretty dark time.”