Civil rights and housing: how Picture the Homeless is campaigning for change in New York City

In New York City, the cost of housing can easily outprice wages. Tonight an estimated 3,200 people will spend the night on the streets, 41,000 will sleep in a shelter and in more than 280,000 households, people will sleep in overcrowded conditions due to the high cost of housing. In total, over 100,000 people spend time in a shelter every year.[1] Homelessness in New York City is at its highest since the Great Depression.

Picture the Homeless (PTH) is a grassroots organisation which aims to change this situation. Founded and led by homeless people, PTH fights to challenge images, stigma and media representation through two key areas: housing and civil rights. PTH has been an Oak partner with the Housing and Homelessness Programme since 2009.

According to Picture the Homeless there’s just not enough housing to go around and cities would rather spend money on arresting homeless people or warehousing them in expensive shelters than getting them actual housing. It costs New York more than a billion dollars a year to run the broken shelter system. But according to PTH, “homeless people have a better plan”. Since 2003, members of Picture the Homeless have been demanding action on vacant property and in 2012, after extensive research, they revealed that there was enough potential vacant housing for 199,981 people in New York City alone.

Homeless people in New York City face harassment and arrest, have their belongings thrown away and are ‘moved on’ on a daily basis. Homelessness has become the ‘problem’ rather than the lack of affordable housing. In July PTH met with the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association to brief him on how the New York Police Department (NYPD) functions in relation to the rights of homeless New Yorkers. “The NYPD has an explicit policy of denying homeless people the right to assemble,” PTH Civil Rights organiser Nikita Price told the Special Rapporteur, “homeless New Yorkers are constantly told to ‘move on’ from public spaces like street corners and park benches, even when they’re not breaking any laws.”

On 26 May the New York Civil Liberties union filed a historic complaint ( on behalf of Picture the Homeless, urging the New York City Commission to investigate the NYPD on this issue. The Special Rapporteur was supportive, promising to “be a voice for civil society at the government level”.

To find out more about the work of Picture the Homeless visit its website (  or check out this video (


[1] Picture the Homeless, Frequently Asked Questions, 2016.

Picture the Homeless