The shootings occurred amid a crackdown on New Yorkers sleeping on the subways, and reflected a recent spike in the number of homeless New Yorkers slain by assailants.
Jeffrey Dilks has been punched in the face. He’s been kicked while sleeping on the sidewalks of New York City and knew people killed while bedding down in public spaces back in his hometown of Camden, NJ. Living on the streets and subways, he says, means bracing for an ever-present threat of violence. “It’s why I don’t sleep,” Dilks said outside the Port Authority Bus Terminal Monday afternoon.
Still, the targeted shootings of at least two homeless men in Lower Manhattan over the weekend were an especially disturbing, if not surprising, series of attacks, he said.
“It’s horrible,” said Dilks, 37, after learning of the shootings that left one dead and another wounded. “We’re living in a sad world.”
Inside the nearby bus terminal, tabloid covers warned of a “Homeless ‘Serial Killer’” seen on surveillance footage shooting a man to death on Lafayette Street in SoHo. Police in New York City and Washington D.C. believe the same suspect shot another man in the arm while he lay on the ground at 54 King St. later that evening. Two days earlier he opened fire on at least three people experiencing homelessness in Washington D.C, police said. One of those gunshot victims died, too.
A bearded man named Wilbert, who stood with his possessions piled on a cart on the bus station’s second floor, called the killings “scary,” but said he feels relatively safe where he spends the nights outside near the George Washington Bridge. “No one has given us a hard time,” he added.
The shootings occurred amid a crackdown on New Yorkers sleeping on the subways, and reflected a recent spike in the number of homeless New Yorkers slain by assailants. At least 22 homeless New Yorkers were killed by another person from July 1, 2020 to June 30, 2021, according to statistics first reported by City Limits. Those murders contributed to the deadliest year on record for New York City’s homeless population. (To further illustrate the lethal impact of homelessness, another man was found dead in Lower Manhattan Sunday, though police and city officials say they do not know how he died).
The alleged killer behind the recent attacks was arrested in Washington early Tuesday, hours after Mayor Eric Adams appeared with his D.C. counterpart Muriel Bowser at a press conference to ask for the public’s help with the investigation. The suspect, who the New York Times identified as 30-year-old Washington resident Gerald Brevard III, was allegedly seen on surveillance footage in D.C. as well as what appeared to be an ATM camera. Video from a SoHo surveillance camera appeared to show the suspect walk past a man sleeping under a yellow covering in a doorway before returning, nudging him with his foot and shooting him in the head.
“Homelessness should not be a homicide,” Adams said. “This was a cold-blooded attack …This person is carrying out a premeditative act of shooting innocent people.”
Adams blamed the shootings on the “overproliferation” and “sick fixation” with guns on the streets of New York City and other urban centers. He bristled at a reporter’s question about whether his subway policing policy, which has focused in part on removing homeless people from stations and trains, led to more people staying on the streets. He dismissed suggestions that the high-profile strategy—outlined at two press conferences with Gov. Kathy Hochul—inflamed biases against unsheltered New Yorkers.
“There is nothing dignified about living on the subway tracks. There’s nothing dignified by treating homeless people in an undignified manner and not giving them the services they deserve,” Adams said. “To even insinuate that giving people the dignity of housing would contribute to some sick mind of shooting them is just not something I’m going to entertain.”
The subway strategy has yet to provide much housing, however. Between Feb. 21 and 27, police ejected 455 people from trains and platforms and arrested 143 others, but outreach workers only managed to place 22 people into shelters, the Mayor’s Office said earlier this month.
In the wake of the shootings, the NYPD also began canvassing the streets to warn homeless New Yorkers about the attacks, ask them if they had encountered the suspect and find out if there were any undiscovered victims, Police Commissioner Keechant Sewell told reporters.
“Those experiencing homelssess are suffering,” Sewell said. “They are people who face challenges every day just to survive.”
Other recent attacks on homeless New Yorkers drive that point home.
One man was set on fire in November 2021 while sleeping on the stairwell of a Lower East Side NYCHA complex. The flames engulfed him, burning 75 percent of his body, the Daily News reported. That same month, a soccer star from The Bronx was stabbed in the neck while he slept on the train. In May 2021, a man living on the streets of Ridgewood died following a fight.
In 2019, a man on a lethal stabbing spree murdered four people as they slept outside in Chinatown. And in February 2021, an attacker slashed four A Train passengers, killing two people who were apparently homeless.
Often portrayed as the perpetrators of violent crime, especially in the wake of high profile assaults, street homeless New Yorkers are disproportionately targeted by attackers, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless.
“Street homelessness increases the risk of violence because in that situation or circumstance, you’re very vulnerable,” Ashley Belcher, outreach and organizing specialist at the organization Human.nyc, told City Limits. “You never know who’s gonna pass you or what could come up to you.”
Homeless New Yorkers and their advocates say the best way to move people off the streets and keep them safe is to provide housing, or at least more desirable shelter accommodations.
City officials and nonprofit service providers are still fleshing out plans to expand outreach teams and increase the number of shelter beds specifically intended for people staying on the streets as part of the subway policing plan. The Department of Homeless Services is adding nearly 500 new SafeHaven and stabilization shelters, but just a handful have opened, the agency’s commissioner said at Council hearing March 7. Daily shelter census reports tracked by City Limits show the number of people staying in SafeHavens has hovered between 1,323 and 1,353 from Feb. 10 to March 10.
The SafeHaven and stabilization facilities feature fewer restrictions than the more common congregate shelters, which most people staying on the streets say they have tried before deciding to leave, according to a 2021 report by the Coalition for the Homeless. New Yorkers bedding down in public places interviewed by City Limits say they fear for their safety at the group shelters or want more privacy and autonomy.
But a shelter stay typically provides the clearest path to an apartment, including supportive housing, allowing people to better manage their mental illness and improve their health.
A coalition of activists and nonprofit organizations, including Open Hearts Initiative, VOCAL-NY and Neighbors Together, urged Adams on Monday to immediately provide private hotel rooms to any person staying on the streets who wants one. The group suggested that the city use hotel rooms that had recently served as isolation or quarantine accommodations during the wintertime surge in COVID cases.
“Now is the time to use the tools we have to save lives,” they wrote in an open letter to Adams. “We urge you to have outreach teams on the ground today offering hotel rooms to keep people safe.”
Dilks, the man staying on the street near Port Authority, said he has avoided outreach workers for several weeks because he did not think they had much to offer him. He said he had heard the term SafeHaven before, but did not think they were a realistic possibility.
Nevertheless, he said would move off the streets and out of transit hubs if he were offered a private room.
“That’s something I’d do,” he said. “I just need a warm bed.”