Homeless People Respond to New “NYC Safe” Mental Health Initiative

On Thursday, August 6th, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the new initiative “NYC Safe,” described as “an evidence-driven program to support the narrow population of New Yorkers with untreated serious mental illness who pose a concern for violent behavior… establishing a centralized oversight body that coordinates public safety and public health.”

While the commitment of new resources is welcome, the core problem of homelessness in New York City is not one of mental health resources. The city currently spends far more per year to warehouse homeless people in shelters than would be required to house them. Additional oversight and more case workers will do little to address the fundamental problem: the city’s complete failure to provide real, safe, sustainable housing options to low-income New Yorkers, including the mentally ill.

Many homeless people have concerns about the new program, particularly as it connects to recent media scare-mongering that once again exploits the antisocial behavior of a few individuals to paint a picture of all homeless people as violent, dangerous, mentally-ill substance abusers in need of aggressive policing.

William Burnett, a formerly-homeless veteran and member of the board of directors of Picture the Homeless, said, “My concern is that this program to provide mental health services will be used as an excuse to harass people who are homeless, who may or may not need mental health care; or, at least, who may or may not be a threat to public safety.”

“On its face, moving to treat mentally ill persons – even those who are violent – with mental healthcare is a great improvement is a great improvement over criminalizing everyone.  The concern, here, is that Mayor de Blasio’s  initiative aims at proactively seeking people out, rather than responding to incidents where a mentally ill person poses an actual threat to public safety. NYPD does not have a very good track record in its proactive initiatives: whether it’s stop-and-frisk, or blanketing vulnerable communities. NYPD has a tendency to use campaigns of harassment on vulnerable populations to affect the perception of a threat to public safety; and officers assume the benefit of broad discretion to do so. So who gets to decide whether an individual homeless person is violently mentally ill; or just mentally ill for that matter?

“And it’s meaningless that officers will be joined by social workers in this initiative,” Burnett continued. “Time-and-time again, in our shelters, social workers make highly arbitrary decisions about who might be violently mentally ill or pose a threat to public safety or the safety of the shelter. In many cases, incidents are usually a culmination of a homeless person, for obvious reasons, having a very bad day, a social worker having a very bad day, and their combined tensions resulting in a heated exchange. While we would expect a social worker to be professional enough to rise above the heat of the exchange and know how to de-escalate it, they’re human too. The problem is that the power dynamic between the homeless person and the social worker favors the social worker. If NYPD, through this initiative, is going to be taking a more proactive approach in the shelters, what stops this initiative from being used to subjugate homeless people to greater arbitrary abuse of shelters authority?”

Mae Birch, homeless since 2013, was also concerned that this would be an excuse for even more harassment of homeless people by the NYPD.  “I got arrested because I didn’t want to move – cops told me to clear out of public space but I knew I had the right to be there. They put the handcuffs on me and put me in Harlem psych ward. I was there for 10 days. Then they put me right back in the streets to be homeless.”

“De Blasio’s plan doesn’t mention anything about housing,” Mae continued. “He doesn’t mention nothing about putting the mentally ill in a safe environment. He’s avoiding the issue about housing homeless people. He’s evading it. They think we’re mentally ill because you see people talking to themselves. Maybe they’re just upset and have no one to listen. When I was in the shelter system, the staff stole my clothes. I will never go back to another shelter – staff talks to you like you’re a dog (not all, but some of them), they look down at you. All the money they are using in the shelter, they can build buildings and put people in housing.”

Marcus Moore, also homeless, added “I see in this more criminalization of mentally ill and poor homeless people. This time the camouflage is having the police directly working in the shelters. So now it’s almost a jail model, another form of control and oppression on a population that’s already beat down, and half of them are already drugged up with medication. I don’t see how that leads to independence and housing.”

PTH member Scott Hutchins said “Only about 20% of homeless people are mentally ill, and these measures will make shelters more prison-like and stressful for 100% of residents. NYPD are rarely kind to homeless people, and we don’t need them in the shelters more often than they already are. The correct way to alleviate homelessness is to provide housing. The skyrocketing rates of homelessness are caused by skyrocketing housing prices, high unemployment, and stagnant wages as well as “affordable housing” not being affordable, even with multiple jobs.”