The new mayor of New York City wants to use the police to clear the streets and subways of homeless people and send them straight to hospitals. No mental health teams, no offer of shelter, no medical evaluation to determine whether they pose a threat to anyone — just a bunch of police officers determining if they think someone has the capacity to think clearly. The decision to use police to round up vulnerable individuals and lock them away because they have no home is, quite frankly, a terrifying development.
On November 29, New York City Mayor Eric Adams announced his plan to involuntary commit large numbers of the city’s homeless to mental hospitals. The new policy also expands the use of Kendra’s Law, which allows for court-ordered outpatient “treatment.” This makes it easier to force unhoused people who aren’t exiled to a hospital onto tranquilizing drugs, regardless of any history or threat of violence.
Adams, a former NYPD police captain, plans to send the police and emergency medical personnel, not mental health treatment teams, out into the subways to determine whose beliefs they find too delusional. In other words, the police are being empowered to medically incarcerate unhoused people with virtual impunity.
For many individuals who have been involuntarily committed in the past, these hospitals can feel like jails, or even worse. Barry Floyd, a current peer support specialist who was hospitalized five times against his will, was enraged by this new policy. “What he’s doing is like a concentration camp,” he told Truthout. “Just corralling them into a terrible situation. I think that’s unfair. It’s jail. Just putting people in jail.”
Essentially, Adams is criminalizing homelessness in a city known for its ostentatious displays of wealth and its dearth of affordable housing.
While this dangerous plan is currently local to New York City, it builds upon efforts in California and Oregon to rid the streets of unhoused individuals, not by providing affordable housing, but by banishing those who already have nowhere to turn.
If this policy takes hold, it could be a short matter of time before other major cities around the country follow. One need only look at recent developments regarding reproductive rights, voting and immigration to see how quickly oppressive policies can spread.
In 1999, a woman named Kendra was pushed to her death in front of an oncoming New York City subway train by a man with a long history of hospitalizations and psychotic diagnoses. Soon thereafter, “Kendra’s Law” was enacted. It allowed for court-ordered outpatient “treatment,” euphemistically called Assisted Outpatient Treatment (AOT), requiring individuals to follow strict psychiatric plans to remain out of the hospital.
Technically, Kendra’s Law does not force people to be drugged. But in reality, psychiatric “treatment” often offers little else. If people don’t follow orders, they are brought by police back to a hospital until they abide. Agreeing to take psychiatric drugs and adhere to the psychiatrists’ plans is also often a condition of being discharged from a hospital. Already, most people committed under this law have never displayed any evidence of violence and, unsurprisingly due to racist policing practices and racism within the medical system, they tend to be disproportionately people of color. Specifically, roughly 35 percent are Black while only 33 percent are white. The group of individuals involuntarily committed to hospitals also tend to be disproportionately Black and Brown.
According to the New York Civil Liberties Union: “Kendra’s Law unconstitutionally expands the circumstances under which the State may compel people with mental health challenges to undergo treatment against their will or to participate involuntarily in mental health programs, including potential hospitalization and/or medication.” Mayor Adams’s policy aims to expand an already unethical and inhumane law even further.
New York’s outpatient commitment statute was one of the first of its kind. Today, some form of Kendra’s Law, or AOT, exists in 47 states and the District of Columbia.
Mandated psychiatric treatment, especially without any evidence or threat of violence from the patient, constitutes a deprivation of liberty and lack of due process. Worse, it drives people away from voluntarily seeking shelter and support, leading to an overall increase in the number of people not receiving the services they need.
Policing the Subways
In the New York City subways, specifically, violent crime is up by 44 percent from the year before, with most of that being robberies, according to the NYPD. Mayor Adams already dispatched 1000 additional police officers into the underground to monitor the subway system. So far, however, this staffing surge has only led to an increase in arrests for minor offenses like fare evasion, largely targeting people of color.
The greater number of police officers has not had any effect whatsoever on the overall subway crime rate.
Over 60,000 unhoused New York City residents slept in the city’s shelter system in September 2022, and over 2,000 additional unsheltered people live in the city’s subways. The number of people living on the streets, in subways or in encampments in major cities around the globe is increasing every year. For many, shelters — with limited beds, difficult living conditions, and often strict requirements for residence — are not a viable option.
J. Gonzalez-Blitz has experience living in a shelter for women with mental health and substance abuse issues. In describing her experience, she told Truthout, “There’s enough confusion and weirdness in the shelters to make anyone lose it some. Staff messes with people for the hell of it. Nurse’s offices aren’t open when they’re supposed to be so people can’t access medication … [and] there’s always a chance it could get stolen from your locker.”
It is already well-established that non-police outreach teams on the streets improve outcomes for the homeless. Yet, Mayor Adams recently slashed $12 million from the behavioral health division responsible for sending out these teams. Instead, the police are being given their responsibilities.
Coercive Tactics Aren’t Necessary
Housing first programs, or programs that provide independent housing regardless of whether a person is adhering to psychiatric treatment and/or substance abuse recovery programs, are far more effective at reducing homelessness and hospitalization rates. They also tend to be cheaper than more coercive and callous approaches such as AOT.
Connecticut is one of the three states that has not adopted an outpatient commitment law. Politicians listened to advocates and instead implemented a Peer Specialist Initiative, incorporating individuals as participants in their own recovery and as staff on community-based treatment teams. Researchers in Connecticut, including from Yale University, did rigorous studies on the project over the course of several years and found that those receiving voluntary peer support had superior results compared to those receiving standard clinical services without peer involvement.
The evidence shows that successful crisis response and mental health care promotes civil liberties, rather than hauling people to hospitals against their will. Programs like Connecticut’s offer alternatives to the use of abusive AOT policies implemented by a police department notorious for violating human rights.
In a dramatic and fear-mongering speech announcing the new policy, Mayor Adams claimed the city’s interventions would involve compassionate care and a trauma-informed approach.
Trauma-informed care is about understanding that many of the beliefs and fears that a person experiences are likely to stem from past trauma. Unhoused people are often traumatized by experiences of poverty, abuse, isolation, extreme inequality and oppression. To respond with more of the same is not trauma-informed; it’s trauma-inducing.
Peer support specialist Floyd told Truthout: “When I heard about it, I immediately thought about myself and when I was hospitalized and put in an institution. Because I wouldn’t march to their drumbeat. I did have a drug problem, but I didn’t need to be locked up.”
Floyd, who has been sober now for almost 19 years, added: “They’re taking away the rights of people and all because of this stupid Kendra’s Law. Some people just need a break, ya know, and someone to talk to. That might help. That’s what helped me. Talking to people.”
According to Gerard Quinn, UN special rapporteur on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, until more holistic practices that do not involve coercion, abuse and restraint are adopted, “the discrimination that prevents people with mental health conditions from leading full and productive lives will continue.”
Dorothy Dundas, who was involuntarily hospitalized and forced to undergo electric shock therapy decades ago, agreed. “Until we have kind and compassionate places for people to live when they are feeling overwhelmed by this cruel world, this policy will only randomly imprison people with NO compassionate care,” she told Truthout. “This is a very short-sighted and cruel policy. This policy will further hurt those it is trying to help.”
This cruel and abusive push to lock people up simply for being homeless is leaving vulnerable people, many of whom are already consumed by fear, even more afraid. Gonzalez-Blitz summed it up precisely: “What scares me about Eric Adams is his overall cruelty towards homeless [people] and talking about how he wants to lock people up who have an illness whether they’re posing a threat or not. That’s a type of bigotry, that’s punishing us even if we haven’t done anything.”
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