Under the guise of mental health advocacy and a resolution to homelessness, New York City Mayor Eric Adams has announced an aggressive new agenda in the city where police and emergency medical workers are directed to involuntarily hospitalize people deemed too mentally ill to care for themselves. Since his recent assumption of office in January of this year, Mr. Adams has positioned himself as a force dedicated to solving the homelessness crisis in New York City, a metropolitan area with one of the highest rates of homelessness in the country. Per his campaign website, Adams stated that his top priority would be to “provide homes and help for the homeless.” Based on proposed and implemented policy measures since taking office, Adams’ approach to solving the homelessness crisis in NYC has proved to be much more fierce and deviant than other cities facing similar issues.
In March of this year, Adams declared in an interview that he plans “to rid the encampments off our street,” speaking on the makeshift camps, often referred to as “tent cities,” that homeless folks have established in public spaces. To follow up on this action, Adams claimed his administration was “going to place people in healthy living conditions with wraparound services…within two weeks.” In success, the New York City Police Department (NYPD), in partnership with sanitation workers, cleared 239 encampments in 12 days. However, the actual positive part of the initiation proved to be abandoned, as only five people out of all living in these now-cleared areas agreed to go to a homeless shelter. For the rest, those who cite issues of safety, trust, and strict regulations in shelters, it is assumed that they remained outdoors, with the majority likely to have rebuilt their camps elsewhere.
After Adams’ entire encampment was cleared, Johnny Grima, a man who has been living on the NYC streets since he was a teenager, shared that Adams’ “toxic” rhetoric towards homeless people makes his policy proposals and actions as mayor stand out. “Fascist and oppressive elements within countries will immediately try to attack the most vulnerable,” he said, speaking on the cruelty and barbarity of policies that strip people of what they have established as the best shelter they can sustain.
In his newest proposal, Adams is targeting mentally ill homeless people to reduce crime and clean up the city. Since the pandemic began, there has been a steady increase in crime and random attacks on the streets, many of the perpetrators being mentally ill, often houseless folks. “When you do an analysis of the subway crimes, you are seeing that it’s being driven by people with mental health issues,” the mayor said last month. Brendan McGuire, chief counsel to the mayor, shared that under this new policy, people in public spaces, such as on streets, in public parks, or on the subway, would be assessed on a “case by case” basis, with various workers evaluating whether these at-risk folks were able to provide basic needs such as food, shelter and health care for themselves. The question I raise, along with many other advocates for the homeless and mentally ill, is how anyone living on the streets in a city with already overwhelmed shelters, hospitals, and psychiatric units, is expected to be adequately able to take care of themselves. Suppose their established living spaces are being thoughtlessly eradicated, and their belongings, safety, and security are lost in the process. Are these folks expected to accumulate the goods and services necessary for appropriate self-care and preservation?
During a 19-minute address at City Hall on November 29th, Mayor Adams said that every effort would be made “to assist those who have mental illness and whose illness is endangering them by preventing them from meeting their basic human needs.” Predictably, given the increase in physical and mental illnesses since the pandemic, hospital administrators are stating that there are not enough beds to fulfill the mission that Adams has set out to pursue. Noting that Governor Kathy Hochul had agreed to add 50 new psychiatric beds to hospitals across the city, the mayor claimed, “we are going to find a bed for everyone.” Even mentioning these additional beds seems insignificant because the number of people living in public areas actively suffering from severe mental illness is in the hundreds, if not thousands.
What seems like a great idea to solve the intersecting crises of homelessness and spikes of mental illness in NYC quickly unravels into a scheme of street cleansing and city purification, pushed by Mayor Adams as he seemingly hopes to make people living on the streets and subways disappear. At the beginning of this year, about 3,400 people were living on streets and subways, as reported by an annual estimate that is often criticized as an undercount. According to the Coalition for the Homeless, a nationwide advocacy group with headquarters in New York, studies have shown that many unsheltered New Yorkers have a mental illness or other severe health problems. With no way of mandating substance use treatment and a lack of hospital beds to support the many different needs that must be accounted for when treating people under the complex umbrella of mental illness, how does this administration expect to come to any solutions?
In a recent report from New York City’s Public Advocate, Jumaane D. Williams, he exposes the failures and lagging response from Mayor Adams about the city’s efforts to strengthen its response to those who have a mental illness. The report cites severe declines in mental health crisis centers and mobile response teams in the city, with remaining mental health resources being inundated with the overflow of people that require urgent support. It also claimed that NYPD officers are not receiving sufficient mental crisis response training yet are still the main go-to for responding to mental health emergencies. In tandem with most people who understand the mechanics and brutal realities of mental illness, Williams also advocates for non-police responses to crises that are non-medical. Regardless of these crippling deficiencies across a wide range of essential resources, under this new policy, Adams maintains his enlistment of police officers and medical workers as being responsible for determining whether or not someone has, in blatant terms, control over their own life and illness.
This strong desire to stow away the unhoused and mentally ill is frightening, especially as the city faces an extreme lack of resources and aid beneficial to vulnerable communities in the city. Erasing the people does not erase the problem, as seen with the many accounts of homeless hopping from encampment to encampment as each one is “cleaned up.” However, Adams and his administration offer no plan for resolving homelessness and uncontrolled mental illness. Mayor Adams refers to the “moral obligation” NYC residents must take to rectify the city’s mental health crisis in the streets. However, nothing seems moral about dehumanizing populations of people and housing folks like prisoners with the pretense of rehabilitation while legitimately not having the resources or ability to administer that care. What appears to be the case with this initiative is a severe deflection of accountability and responsibility – dogpiling on our already overwhelmed first responders, continuing to shut down mental health and rehabilitation centers, blocking affordable housing programs, and forcing unsheltered people into even worse conditions on the streets by repetitively discarding the homes they establish.