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NYC's mayor faces backlash for planning to involuntarily hospitalize homeless people

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

New York City is considering a plan to remove some people living on the street. A group called the Coalition for the Homeless tries to estimate how many people in the city spend their nights in shelters, in tents and on sidewalks. They assert the numbers are the worst in generations. Many residents say they feel unsafe around people who are mentally ill, which is apparently why Mayor Eric Adams says he wants to take some people to hospitals, whether they want to or not. Let's talk this through with NPR's Jasmine Garsd, who is in New York. Good morning.

JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Why is the mayor speaking out on this?

GARSD: Well, this crisis has become most visible on the subways. Unlike other cities in the U.S., New Yorkers commute primarily on public transportation, and now New Yorkers are being asked to do more of that - right? - to go back to the office, while there's a sense that the subway system has become unsafe. There were several high-profile incidents, including killings committed by and against homeless people in New York City. So the plan's aim is to get people who are suffering mental health crises on the streets and subways off the streets.

INSKEEP: However, doing that involuntarily becomes controversial. So what are you hearing from New Yorkers?

GARSD: Oh, it's been very controversial. Advocates say it's just an uncreative solution to an old problem. They stress that it is already policy that if a person is a danger to themselves or others, they can be hospitalized against their will. And their problem with Adams' proposal is the expansion of who it could target. They worry it could lead to involuntary commitment of people who aren't unstable; they're just poor and living on the streets.

I spoke to a lot of New Yorkers right after this plan was announced, and most people said, yes, they notice a considerable increase in homelessness, and they have at some point been concerned about their own safety. One person I spoke to was Sarah Trigg in Queens. We chatted as she was waiting for the M train, and she told me that at that very station, she'd recently had an unsettling encounter. The station, by the way, is above ground, and it was deserted, except for...

SARAH TRIGG: A pretty heavyset man just throwing himself against the window. No one was there helping him. I couldn't enter the station. I had to change my plans.

GARSD: Trigg says there's been a noticeable shift on the subways.

TRIGG: You know, I've been in New York since '96, and it's definitely gotten worse.

GARSD: New York City has been struggling with homelessness for decades, but it's gotten worse with the pandemic, says Jacquelyn Simone, policy director at the Coalition for the Homeless.

JACQUELYN SIMONE: People who are very tenuously housed, some of them went into the shelter system, and some of them ended up on the street.

GARSD: And as services moved online...

SIMONE: People who were trying to maintain engagement with mental health or substance use providers had an increasingly difficult time doing so.

GARSD: Several attacks on the subway system, including a passenger being pushed in front of a train and killed by a homeless man with a mental health condition, escalated the sense of unease. In a recent press conference, Mayor Eric Adams laid out a plan which involves involuntary hospitalization.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ERIC ADAMS: If severe mental illness is causing someone to be unsheltered and a danger to themselves, we have a moral obligation to help them get the treatment and care they need.

GARSD: The announcement sparked an outcry among activists who see this as an attack on poor New Yorkers rather than an attempt to offer help.

SIMONE: There is a real risk that people will be swept up who don't actually meet the standard for involuntary treatment.

GARSD: Jacquelyn Simone from the Coalition for the Homeless says the plan is just more of the same. Involuntary hospitalization is already performed in New York when necessary.

SIMONE: But what Mayor Adams is suggesting is a much broader interpretation. They could really risk having police and other people without adequate training just removing people from the street involuntarily because of the fact that they're homeless.

GARSD: And that's the other controversial aspect of the plan - NYPD's involvement. In an exclusive interview with NPR, Mayor Eric Adams said...

ADAMS: We are not saying everyone with a mental health illness is all of a sudden going to be swept up and put inside of some institution somewhere. No. We're saying a small number that fit into a specific category of not being able to take care of their basic needs and are in danger to themselves or others. That is the group we're talking about.

GARSD: Adams also pointed out that there has been and will continue to be extensive training for police and other service providers. Above all, he wants New Yorkers to know...

ADAMS: This is not a police-driven initiative. We have been partnering with mental health professionals and using police as first-line responders.

BILL BRATTON: I'll be very frank with you - I don't believe the officers are going to engage.

GARSD: That's former NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton, who told NPR he foresees the police wanting nothing to do with this.

BRATTON: They are just not trained to do what the mayor is expecting of them - to analyze a person and make a determination this person should be forcibly, if necessary, taken into custody.

GARSD: NYPD declined to comment, but Bratton says even if they do cooperate, there's no resources to escalate involuntary hospitalization - not enough beds. He says he's been dealing with this issue throughout his whole career.

BRATTON: Not much has changed other than there's fewer places to put these people for long-term care. The resources aren't there. It's quite a conundrum.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: This is an up and down M...

GARSD: Penn Station is the heart of New York's transit system and a place where the scope of the crisis is obvious. It's a spot where many homeless New Yorkers take shelter during this cold. A woman near a ticket vending machine screams at no one. On a platform bench, a young man nods off. There's also a legion of folks who are quietly trying to get by. Jerome Granville (ph), 36, is just sitting in a corner. He says he's been on the streets for years. When I explained Adams' plan for involuntary hospitalization, he said it actually makes some sense.

JEROME GRANVILLE: Sometimes some people don't realize they're going through something, and they might need a little bit of help. So he's doing something right.

GARSD: But he says the biggest assistance he could get is housing, somewhere his social worker could find him more regularly.

GRANVILLE: Only thing I need is housing. Housing will help me because when I get a job, I'll have somewhere to go home and take a shower and rest. So that's why housing will help me.

GARSD: Housing - this is exactly what advocates and activists have been saying for years. Homelessness cannot be tackled without a serious effort at supportive housing. Mayor Eric Adams says he agrees, but he says there's a crisis.

ADAMS: What are we going to do now? No one is willing to stand up and say, while we're building that housing, what are we going to do with that person that has severe mental health illness and cannot take care of their basic needs?

INSKEEP: Well, Jasmine Garsd, what else did the mayor say when he called you?

GARSD: Well, he told me the plan has been misrepresented as an NYPD operation. But, you know, Steve, it's already getting a lot of legal pushback.

INSKEEP: NPR criminal justice correspondent Jasmine Garsd. Thanks so much.

GARSD: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Jasmine Garsd is an Argentine-American journalist living in New York. She is currently NPR's Criminal Justice correspondent and the host of The Last Cup. She started her career as the co-host of Alt.Latino, an NPR show about Latin music. Throughout her reporting career she's focused extensively on women's issues and immigrant communities in America. She's currently writing a book of stories about women she's met throughout her travels.
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