New York Mayor Eric Adams announced this week that police and emergency medical workers will start hospitalizing people with mental illness against their will, even if they pose no threat to others. Rights groups and community organizations have slammed the move as inhumane and are demanding better access to housing and other support for people struggling with mental illness and homelessness. “That does require funding. That does require investment. Unfortunately, we don’t get that,” says Jumaane Williams, New York City’s public advocate, who says officials are too quick to use policing as a solution to social inequality. We also speak with Jawanza Williams of social justice group VOCAL-NY, who says Mayor Adams and his administration are intent on obscuring issues of homelessness and mental illness rather than solving them. “Hiding, disappearing people experiencing homelessness, dismantling encampments, preventing people from taking photographs inside of the shelters will not prevent the truth from coming out,” he says.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman.
We end today’s show here in New York City, where Mayor Eric Adams alarmed human rights advocates this week with his announcement police and emergency medical workers will start hospitalizing people who are unhoused with mental illness against their will, even if they pose no threat to others.
MAYOR ERIC ADAMS: A common misunderstanding persists that we cannot provide involuntary assistance unless the person is violent, suicidal or presenting a risk of imminent harm. This myth must be put to rest.
AMY GOODMAN: The New York Civil Liberties Union responded, quote, “The Mayor’s attempt to police away homelessness and sweep individuals out of sight is a page from the failed Giuliani playbook. With no real plan for housing, services, or supports, the administration is choosing handcuffs and coercion,” the NYCLU said.
For more, we’re joined by two guests: Jumaane Williams, New York City public advocate, who has called for nonpolice responses to noncriminal emergencies in a plan he submitted to Mayor Adams to end systemic homelessness; also with us, Jawanza Williams, director of organizing at VOCAL-NY, which has long called for, quote, “Caring and Compassionate New Deal” to address poverty and public health concerns, and supported Daniel’s Law, which would work to replace police officers with mental health workers when someone is experiencing a mental health crisis, named for Daniel Prude, who’s the African American man who was killed by police in Rochester, New York. As he was naked outside, they pushed his face into the freezing cold ground, put their knee in his back for a number of minutes.
Jumaane Williams, Jawanza Williams, welcome to Democracy Now! Jumaane Williams, start off by saying — by responding to Mayor Adams’ plan, a plan I think that cities around the country are looking at now.
JUMAANE WILLIAMS: Well, first, thank you so much for having me. And I’m glad to be with Jawanza. Once I’m with Jawanza, I know I’m in the right space, so it’s good to be here.
You know, the major flag for me is, if we know more about people being involuntarily detained by police than we do about the care and continuing care that they’re going to receive, that’s a major red flag. And we for too long have been overly reliant on law enforcement to deal with issues like homelessness and mental health, which are a problem and it can’t be ignored, because we refuse to invest in what’s actually needed to deal with the issues.
And as you mentioned, we put out several plans, actually, the last of which was two weeks ago, around how we can address the mental health crisis, making sure that our law enforcement are not the primary responders, and certainly not the ones who should be making decisions on whether someone is involuntarily put into a hospital or not. You can only do that for two or three days.
Many of the questions has to do with what happens after that. Are they getting the care that they need, the continuing care they need? And lastly, seems like we’re broadening the definition of who this can happen to. And so we have a lot of questions that we’re going to be asking the mayor to answer.
AMY GOODMAN: How did he respond to the plan that you put forward as public advocate, Jumaane?
JUMAANE WILLIAMS: Well, you know, we’re still waiting to hear an actual response. And I’m not sure if this was a response. And so, we want to confirm that the right folks got it. And we believe that they did. But, you know, I’m one always trying to make sure that we’re giving every opportunity for people to respond.
And, you know, we’ve been talking about these issues for a long time. As a matter of fact, the report we put out two weeks ago was an update to the report that we put out in 2019. And we have done some good things, but, quite frankly, in most places we’ve actually gone backwards. And even parts of the plan that — there are parts that actually make some sense, but again, the parts that we are happy are in there — drop-in centers and other types of programs — there is no discussion about how much funding will go there, how it will be operationalized and when it will begin.
AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about the alternative. Talk about the plan you’ve put forward. We’re talking about something like 55,000 unhoused people in New York City.
JUMAANE WILLIAMS: Well, you know, we put forth two plans that normally can be talked about together: housing and homelessness, and mental health. And when it comes to the mental health, you know, in 2019, we had more respite centers than we do now. We had more beds than we do now. And so, before the pandemic, we had more capacity, and we already had issues. If we have less capacity, you can imagine how much issues we have now.
And, of course, many people who are chronically homeless in the street — and we have to make mention that there are many people who are actually working poor and just can’t afford a place to live, but there are folks who need additional supports, need supportive housing, which we lack very much. And so we have a number of ideas of how to build and preserve actual housing that we have now.
When it comes to people who are in mental health crisis and need care, we laid out a very concrete plan of how we can build out an infrastructure so people can get the care and the continuing care that is needed. That does require funding. That does require investment. Unfortunately, we don’t get that. What we often get is, if we can’t deal with these issues now, we’ll send law enforcement to solve the problems that we’re failing at. Quite frankly, it’s not fair to the law enforcement officer, who doesn’t have the tools to do this, and certainly not fair to the person who needs the assistance, or the community.
AMY GOODMAN: The new report that you’ve put out shows it costs $46,000 more per year to host a family of three in a city shelter than to provide that family with affordable housing. I mean, again, from San Francisco to Los Angeles to New York, this issue of warehoused apartments and houses that are not used and the crisis of homelessness in the city, if you could talk about what is the path to using that space?
JUMAANE WILLIAMS: You know, we put so much money into “sheltering,” quote-unquote, homeless New Yorkers — and I’m sure it’s the same in all across the country — than we do in actually housing them. And it’s a lot of frustration there. We have been trying to battle what we call zombie houses and warehousing houses that people are keeping off the market. We do try a lot to make sure that when there’s rezonings that happen in the city, that we actually put deeply income-targeted affordable housing in those units.
But right now there’s something called good-cause eviction that’s being held up by the governor and by the real estate industry, that simply says, and this is all it says, is that if you want to evict someone, you should give a good reason to do so. And we get such pushback on that. That alone could stem the tide of evictions that are going on, and stem the increase of homelessness that’s going on.
We also need to see additional support for people who need tenant rental assistance, because the type of support that people get now for rental assistance doesn’t match where the market is. And New York City is now the most expensive place to rent. It’s actually passed San Francisco and some other places. But yet we’re not doing anything to stem those tides. And the people who make the most money off of this and donate the most money are setting the rules that are, unfortunately, making it worse.
AMY GOODMAN: Your report also finds a majority of those in shelters are men, women and families of color, the largest share Black, who have come from historically redlined neighborhoods, quote, “that this city has neglected with its education, environmental, health, and housing dollars.” I wanted to bring in Jawanza Williams with that finding and the kind of work you do at VOCAL-NY, and also ask you about the new rules that are banning photos and videos from within the New York City shelter system.
JAWANZA WILLIAMS: So, first of all, thank you so much for having me, Amy. I deeply appreciate it. And, of course, I deeply appreciate being on the air with the honorable Public Advocate Jumaane Williams.
I think the first thing that I’ve got to say is that VOCAL-NY, we’re a statewide grassroots membership organization building power to end AIDS, homelessness, mass incarceration and the racist, classist drug war and to build an economy and a democracy in New York state that works for all of us. And in particular, we’ve organized two issue-based unions — a homelessness union and a civil rights union — made up of people who are directly impacted by these issues, who are politically active and responding. So, a lot of the perspective that I’m holding today is about — is coming from the leadership of people directly impacted in these union structures.
And I think that the idea that we have to — like, that there’s new policies banning photography inside of shelters is no surprise to me. I think that the mayor and the administration have a public catastrophe unfolding for them politically. This is not good optics for this administration. And I think that the thing at the core that we have to hold is that hiding, disappearing people that are experiencing homelessness, dismantling encampments, you know, preventing people from taking photographs inside of shelters will not prevent the truth from coming out.
And I think that one of the things that I really want to pull forward into this conversation, and I deeply appreciate the number of things that the public advocate is talking about, is that we need to be using phrases and language like “mental health complexity.” You know, we don’t want to individualize all of these phenomena, talking about mental illness for individual people, but thinking about the structural, sociopolitical, cultural framework, situation, that is exacerbating these issues, like mass homelessness, like problematic drug policy that’s criminalizing people.
So, what we need to see happen is the city of New York, that our mayor is actually responding to the structural phenomena that’s exacerbating these things, so that we can actually use our limited resources in a more targeted way that actually makes sense. So, you know, a colleague of mine, Celina Trowell, a homeless union organizer, said to me yesterday that the moment that something is coercive, compassion is out the door. And I think that we’ve got to hold that complexity.
And also I need to uplift that, you know, the public advocate mentioned people needing rental assistance. The bill on the state level that we’re fighting for right now is called the Housing Access Voucher Program. It’s a Section 8-style housing voucher for New York state that would go to people experiencing homelessness, people that are struggling to pay their rents, and also people who are undocumented. So, if we are able to pass this bill, we’re able to make sure that thousands, tens and tens of thousands, of people are able to be stably housed. And that would do a large amount of work responding to the issues that we’re experiencing right now in the city.
AMY GOODMAN: The New York City Department of Education released a report last month that nearly 104,000 public school students were unhoused in 2021. That includes living in shelters, in cars, kids doubled with family members, or just on the streets. They don’t include migrant children who have just been arriving in New York City. What is Mayor Adams doing about this, Jawanza?
JAWANZA WILLIAMS: You know, Amy, that’s a really good question. I’m not totally sure what the mayor is doing about these issues in reality. He is sweeping encampments. He’s talking about involuntarily arresting people to put them into supposed treatment with no real meaningful plan, no pathway, no commonsensical infrastructure for stabilization, no real promise for supportive housing, no — you know, and really this smoke-and-mirrors trick that he’s been doing all throughout the year, especially when it came to safe-haven, low-threshold shelter beds, which were supposed to be single-room occupancy options for people that were experiencing street homelessness. He created congregate settings in the middle of a pandemic, whenever we know that that system doesn’t work for the vast majority of people that are experiencing street homelessness.
I haven’t heard anything about the children across this city, that 100,000-plus children, 5,000 of them not sheltered at all, you know, experiencing life like this. And there’s no conversation about that. And I think that that’s part and parcel to the problem that is affecting, you know, democracy in the United States itself. You know, when I think about the fact that we didn’t hear anything about the 104,000 children that went to school from a shelter in New York state — in New York City, I’m sorry, in 2021, during the gubernatorial debates, during any kind of midterm conversations in the state of New York, there’s no meaningful contention with this issue. And I think that it’s part and parcel to why we have these crises, these concurring crises, like the mental health crisis and like the homelessness crisis.
And one thing I do also want to uplift, when we’re thinking about the long-term future of this city and its people, what story are we telling to the 100,000 children that are experiencing homelessness right now — because many of them are aware that they’re homeless — that we’re scapegoating people experiencing homelessness for every violent thing that happens in the city; that we’re not actually moving in loving, caring and compassionate ways; that we’re not trying to problem solve at the root, and instead, we’re using these narratives and these frameworks that produce vigilantes, for instance? Think about the number of people experiencing homelessness, especially street homelessness, that have been killed in the last couple of years, in the last three years, in Chinatown, across our city. Think about —
AMY GOODMAN: We have five seconds.
JAWANZA WILLIAMS: — the kind of self-deputization that happens.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you both for being with us, Jawanza Williams, director of organizing at VOCAL-NY, and Jumaane Williams, the New York City public advocate.
That does it for our show. Democracy Now! is produced with Renée Feltz, Mike Burke, Deena Guzder, Messiah Rhodes, María Taracena, Tami Woronoff, Charina Nadura, Sam Alcoff, Tey-Marie Astudillo, John Hamilton. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.