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We Can’t Police Our Way Out of Homelessness and Mental Health Crises

We know the real solutions to these problems.

Carson Mathius / Shutterstock
By: Beth Haroules Director of Disability Justice Litigation, Legal Department & Simon McCormack Senior Writer, Communications

When Michelle Go was pushed to her death on the Times Square subway tracks last month, it was a tragedy on multiple levels.

It was a tragedy for Go’s family and friends, one of whom described her as “the person who did everything right.” It was a tragedy for New York’s Asian-American community – of which Go was a member – who have endured a spike in violence against them since the pandemic began.

It was a tragedy that highlighted New York’s underfunded and inadequate mental health care system that regularly fails New Yorkers. And it was also another reminder of the tragedy of tens of thousands of homeless New Yorkers who sleep in violence-plagued shelters or on the cold streets every night.

Martial Simon, the man accused of pushing Go had a long history of struggling with mental illness and homelessness and he regularly complained he could not get the treatment he needed.

People with mental illness are much more likely to be the victims of violence than to commit violence. But whenever an incident like the one in January makes headlines, the response from many policymakers is predictable: More police, more coercion of people with mental illness, and – at best – only nods to the deeper problems that cause homelessness, mental health crises, and violence.

Using the police as the solution to deep-rooted issues of homelessness, racism, and a dearth of mental health care resources does not get at the heart of the social ills we are facing. It could actually make things worse by, for example, saddling people with criminal records that make it harder for people to obtain housing. And studies have made clear that coercing people into getting mental health care is ineffective and does little to actually improve people’s mental health.

There is another way.

More Supportive Housing

There are more than 90,000 homeless people on any given night in New York State, and not nearly enough affordable housing for them to live in. Many people experiencing homelessness are afraid to stay in shelters, which are too often violent, dirty places where diseases can easily spread, especially during the pandemic.

Studies cited by the Coalition for the Homeless indicate that the large majority of homeless New Yorkers living on the street are people with mental illness or other severe health problems. The Coalition notes that permanent supportive apartments – where people can easily access services – paired with mobile mental health outreach teams are the “most effective permanent housing solution … for those who opt to stay in public places instead of shelters.”

Gov. Hochul’s budget calls for the creation of 10,000 more supportive housing units to be phased in over five years. But that isn’t nearly enough given that there are 92,000 homeless people in New York today, and more people are expected to become homeless with the lifting of the state’s eviction moratorium in January.

Local governments have also failed to put up the resources needed to end or even significantly reduce homelessness. Many, including New York City, actually plan to reduce spending on homeless services.

More Psychiatric Services

By almost any metric, our state’s mental health care system is in desperate need of more funding, staff, and services.

There are not enough community-based services, there is a shortage of crisis stabilization beds for people in acute mental health emergencies, and there are certainly not enough resources for psychiatric centers. As a result, people in need of services are sometimes merely forcibly medicated and then quickly discharged back to the street, without enough support to keep them from coming back.

Organizations that represent mental health care workers say the workforce “is on life support.”

In short, we need more treatment dollars, more staff who can provide support that reflects cultural, gender, and language needs, as well as better coordinated and robust case management to make sure people are getting the services they need.

Mental Health Professionals, Not Police

Without the care they need to manage their mental health, New Yorkers regularly fall through the cracks until they experience a crisis. During these crises, police officers are too often the first responders. The results, like in the tragic case of Daniel Prude in Rochester, can be deadly.

Police officers are not health care providers. They are trained to see people as potential threats, and they tend to view the situations they face through the prism of criminality. Their presence and behavior often escalates situations and can increase the chances of violence.

We need state legislation that creates a crisis intervention model where trained mental health professionals, rather than police, respond to mental health crises. Professionals who have experience working with individuals with mental and behavioral health issues must set the rules for responding to a mental health crisis.

A public health model will help build trust and create an avenue through which people can be connected with community-based services.

Preventing AAPI Violence

The attack on Michelle Go is another in a growing number of attacks on members of the Asian American and Pacific Islander community. To deal with this violence, city and state governments need to support community-led programs to keep AAPI people safe.

These programs and initiatives take many forms. In some neighborhoods, community members have gathered in shifts to accompany them when they leave their homes. This allows elders to continue on with their lives without fear of being attacked or harassed. We need to support and fund these programs.

Restorative justice programs can also play a role. Through restorative practices, the offender makes amends both to the person they’ve hurt and the community at large. The offender gains a better understanding of their impact, and the community is made whole.

And just like we must invest in our mental health care system, we also need to invest in AAPI communities. The psychological impacts of these attacks have lasting effects. We need to fund and nurture culturally responsive and language-accessible health and social services designed to address trauma, resiliency, and healing.

The Wrong Approaches

Until we adequately invest in the long-term health and well-being of New Yorkers facing mental illness and our chronic lack of housing, the current crisis will continue. The decades-old practice of sweeping deep-seated problems under the rug may play well for the politicians, but the problems will persist – for vulnerable people in desperate need of government services and for New Yorkers – including, tragically, members of the AAPI community like Michelle Go who become the collateral damage of failed policies.

As many  New Yorkers struggle to find housing and desperately needed medical care,  some politicians and law enforcement groups are calling to expand the government’s authority under Kendra’s Law to force people into hospitals and coerced medication regimens, even if they don’t meet the medical criteria for involuntary hospitalization.

Studies have found that court orders do not increase compliance, nor do they lead to any reduction in symptoms or problematic behavior.

There is also clear evidence that Kendra’s Law disproportionately targets people of color. State data shows 65 percent of all court orders under Kendra’s Law are entered against people of color, particularly men of color.

We must not rely on the false comfort of criminalization and coercion. We must not lock people with mental health issues away in hospitals and throw away the key. We must not allow police officers to simply sweep homeless people off our streets or out of the subways so they are kept out of sight. And we can’t rely on policing and over-criminalization to end violence against AAPI people.

We need to actually take on the societal problems that have caused extensive suffering and needless harm.

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Civil Liberties Union