Guest Essay: Mayor Adams’ new policy for the unhoused is dangerous for New York

Mayor Eric Adams’ latest policy is the tipping point of his year-long fight to remove houseless people from subway stations against their will without meaningfully addressing the issues they face.

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Kevin Wu

(Kevin Wu for WSN)

Leann Beard, Guest Contributor

Last Tuesday, Mayor Eric Adams unveiled his new policy initiative, the crown jewel of his policies attempting to reduce visible poverty, while doing nothing to address the issue itself. The 11-point agenda took aim at “long standing gaps in our state Mental Hygiene Law,” but drew attention for the announcement that, moving forward, police officers would pursue involuntary hospitalization of “individuals suffering from untreated severe mental illness” who appear to be “unable to meet their basic needs.”

Involuntary psychiatric assessment and involuntary hospitalization already exist. Per New York City code, police can already place anyone into custody who appears to be “mentally ill” and is “conducting themselves in a manner likely to result in serious harm to self or others.” The existing code has no objective framework for making this determination, and it is entirely at the discretion of the police officer. 

Once in custody, city code dictates these persons are to be brought to a hospital, where a medical evaluation will determine if the person appears to be at risk of harming themself or others. If the evaluation concludes that the person has a mental illness and is likely to cause harm, then they will be admitted to the hospital for treatment, even if it is against their will.

Under Adams’ newly proposed guidelines, however, posing a danger to self or others is no longer the standard for involuntary removal and hospitalization. The new policy will attempt to institutionalize anyone who appears “mentally ill” and “unable to meet their basic needs.” Adams cited a concern for the welfare and dignity of those living with mental illness, but his track record reveals instead a former cop serving the interests of real estate and business by enacting policies that are harmful to the homeless, the impoverished, and city residents who have a mental illness — all while boosting the budget, presence and power of the New York City Police Department. 

In January, out of an alleged concern for crime, Adams pledged to create an increased police presence in the subways, resulting in nearly twice the amount of arrests and summonses for fare evasion compared to last year. In March, Adams ordered the destruction of thousands of houseless encampments, vowing to place people in “healthy living conditions with wraparound services.” However, without meaningful changes made to the city’s shelters for the unhoused, already notorious for dilapidation, overcrowding and an acute lack of “wraparound services,” the shelters remain an undesirable option. There were 3,198 encampments cleared — of the 2,098 unhoused people displaced, only 115 entered a city shelter

Meanwhile, chasing unhoused people around the city and making their lives miserable required serious manpower, and the NYPD exceeded its overtime budget by over $100 million this year

Even the framing of mental illness in Adams’ pronouncement is incomplete. Research shows that mental illness is a complex web of biological, neurological, psychological, environmental and social factors playing out across an individual’s life. Poverty, a decentralized and patchwork system of mental health care, a need for more robust substance use and addiction services, and a housing crisis are certainly major causes of the “mental health crisis,” which Adams cites as his primary concern. 

But the truth is, Adams is not motivated to make sweeping changes to the system that produces and punishes poverty, mental illness and houselessness. Adams has proven time and time again that he is more interested in a grand reopening of New York City than in addressing the ongoing pandemic and the poverty that many have been left behind in. This initiative is no more about addressing mental illness than it is about removing it from the public sphere through the twin apparatuses of incarceration and institutionalization.

This initiative is a win in Adams’ battle against the unsheltered and poor for the corporations who have donated to his encampment raids, and of course, for the NYPD, who just cashed in its second-highest year on record of overtime spending at a whopping $762 million. 

We must now contend with an administration that has shown it will protect the interests of real estate and business by whatever means necessary. The NYPD gains even more power, with still little oversight, as they begin to remove people they deem to have a mental illness and are unable to meet their basic needs. By weaponizing the department as a tool for removing people from the subways, we can already see how the Adams administration is willing to disregard the rights of New Yorkers that stand in the way of his mission to eradicate visible poverty.

Considerable attention has already been paid to the NYPD’s recent history of surveilling protesters, and it is obvious that police presence at demonstrations has ulterior motives. Consider what this policy means when the department is present at a protest in the future. No bail fund can rescue a Black Lives Matter protester who has been forcibly taken into custody and transported to a hospital for evaluation. No hospital will release the records or location of a climate defender who has been institutionalized after a die-in on Wall Street. No staff psychiatrist will read you your Miranda rights and no attorney will be present at your evaluation. 

Given that the NYPD continues to police Black and Latinx New Yorkers at a significantly higher rate than white New Yorkers, it will likely be these populations who experience the impact of this policy most acutely.

We have a duty to uphold and defend the rights of people to make decisions for themselves about their psychiatric care, and to create a society that models ideals of compassion and care. We all deserve to live in a society with robust social services in regard to housing, substance use, healthcare and mental healthcare, and we all lose when those services are denied and the rights of the vulnerable are trampled in the service of business and real estate.

Leann Beard is a graduate student at the Silver School of Social Work.

WSN’s Opinion section strives to publish ideas worth discussing. The views presented in the Opinion section are solely the views of the writer.

Contact Leann Beard at [email protected]