Redefining Violence To Keep Statistics Down: The Human Rights Crisis In Homeless Shelters in New York City

On Saturday, February 17, the New York Daily News reported a quietly re-defined method of measurement of violent assault to keep “critical incident” statistics down by the Department of Homeless Services (DHS) that were never announced to the public before. The DHS changes of rules were made by the Mayor of New York City, de Blasio’s administration in mid-2016, and were only clearly exposed when the News requested an updated list of critical incidents.

In response to the News’ request, the spokesman of DHS Isaac McGinn explained that it was due to the inaccurate inflation on critical incident rate, he added, “in order to most effectively manage safety in shelters, critical incidents, including violent critical incidents, should reflect the incident itself, with severity based on any injury rather than the resulting action, like arrest, which does not itself pose any risk to other clients in the facility.”

The current DHS rules have eliminated many that were once recorded as the critical incident such as arrest, thefts, drug possession, and child abuse, even when no “immediate removal of child or children” is involved. The previous method to measure incidents was considered over inclusive by the administration and has prevented severe violence from immediate intervention.

Although the new method of measure might help prioritize rapid responses to the most urgent events at shelters, they are largely ineffectual as a fundamental solution to the crisis. The de Blasio administration should realize that it was not the method of measurement that increases the violence rate, but the violence itself, which was predominantly a result of the interplay among different social factors that causes homelessness. Narrowing down the rules to only consider violence as a critical incident when it involves “visible signs of bodily injury to either party” might decrease violence assault rate but does not decrease violent assault. The ignored violence in the shelters, therefore, can worsen what is an already difficult environment for homeless people struggling for a peaceful stay.

According to the New York Daily News’ article, there were 866 “critical incidents” reported by June 30, 2016. Under the same measurement, the number would have increased to a total of 1,732 by the end of the year if the city hadn’t changed the method of measurement and definition.

To decrease the incidence of violent assault rate by redefining what’s inclusive wasn’t new in history, yet it has no means to thoroughly solve the problem at its root. Homelessness is a human rights crisis, the crime and violence happened in the homeless shelter, therefore, should be discussed in the context of human rights violation.

The homeless people as a special segment of the population is a particular target for discrimination. As stated in a report by the UNHRC, housing is a human right rather than a commodity. Governments should take actions to ensure homeless people’s access to affordable housing, but besides that, much more should be done (Report of the Special Rapporteur on adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living, and on the right to non-discrimination in this context). Special attention must be directed to the social environment of shelters. In such a highly occupied place where the privacy of homeless people is hardly protected, policy should be focused on proactive prevention that draw homeless people into violent behavior rather than redefining method of measurement, which requires systematic coordination throughout different social actors including national and local governments, civil society activists, human rights defenders, media agents, and the public. Public awareness of this specific human rights crisis should also be addressed.