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How New York City Plans To Treat Homeless People’s Mental Health Problems

CREDIT: RICHARD DREW, AP
CREDIT: RICHARD DREW, AP

Amid worsening perceptions of homeless people and calls to address mental illness, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has announced the rollout of a $22 million initiative under which mental health experts will aggressively canvass the city in search of the mentally ill — particularly those with a propensity for violence — and connect them with services.

The project, called Safe NYC, will unite various city agencies — including the Department of Homeless Services, New York City Police Department, and the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene — in strengthening the security at homeless shelters, connecting mentally ill returning citizens with care via “intensive mobile treatment teams,” and sharing information about treatment regimen.

The new proposal counts as part of the mayor’s long-term goal to destigmatize mental illness, which also includes his wife Chirlane McCray’s previous announcement of a $30 million plan to provide low-income residents with mental health services. The city’s newest mental health project will require the addition of 50 employees and the services of independent contractors.

“They are a concern to all of us whether they live in an apartment building, a private home, in a shelter or on the street,” de Blasio told the New York Times this week. “The bottom line here is that treatment saves lives. The absence of treatment puts lives in danger. Sometimes it’s the life of the individual themselves; sometimes it’s the life of others.”

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Regardless of whether they come from prison or psychiatric facilities, unaddressed mental health and substance abuse problems can keep people in a cycle of homelessness, a point that de Blasio said he wants to address through Safe NYC.

Since national lawmakers deinstitutionalized mental health services in decades past, New York City’s homeless population — more than 56,000 men, women, and children — is set to outnumber that of the city’s psychiatric facilities. Nearly 40 percent of discharges from state mental institutions still don’t have a known address six months later. A landmark study in 2002 found that the revolving door of homeless people with mental illness cost the city and the state of New York more than $40,000 per person for their use of emergency rooms, psychiatric hospitals, shelters, and prisons. That study, in part, prompted the expansion of the “Housing First” project, an effort to provide mentally ill homeless people with supportive housing and mental health services.

Elizabeth Glazer, the mayor’s director of criminal justice, says Safe NYC will ensure that city agencies are working toward synchronizing information about members of the homeless population that can prevent disparities in access to preventative services. New York City’s new program bears some similarity to the Los Angeles Police Department’s mental evaluation unit — comprised of 61 sworn officers and 29 mental health workers that provide crisis intervention when the mentally ill come into contact with the police.

“Now when city workers are concerned about somebody, they will immediately flag those folks for a kind of air traffic controller, what we’re calling the Hub. Something that’s never existed before,” Glazer told a CBS New York City affiliate.

The de Blasio administration’s recent announcement comes months after the murder of a director of a Bronx-based homeless shelter by a former resident, a case that prompted calls for tighter security in the city’s homeless shelters. In the month of April, four people with mental illnesses killed people or had their lives taken by police officers.

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Mayor de Blasio has attempted to the act swiftly in addressing safety concerns while avoiding stigmatizing the mentally ill, perhaps because this issue is more complicated than it appears on the surface. Though researchers linked less than 8 percent of violent offenses to symptoms of mental illness, many people believe the link to be much more significant, due in part to the advent of headline-making crimes often involving the mentally ill.

Such stereotypes have marginalized members of this population, precluding them from achieving employment, social, and educational opportunities. For some people with developmental disorders, this issue begins at a young age when authority figures misinterpret their outbursts as acts of violence. The American Civil Liberties Union, for example, recently filed a lawsuit against a school resources officer in Kentucky who allegedly shackled two children — each diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder — during three separate incidents.

These violent interactions between special-needs students and authority figures have, in part, fueled the school-to-prison pipeline — defined as polices that push children with learning disabilities, history of poverty, abuse, and neglect out of the classroom and into the juvenile and criminal justice system. Across the country, children with disabilities become incarcerated at a rate five times that of their counterparts.

Some of these youngsters may cycle through the criminal justice system as adults. The mentally ill currently account for 70 percent of the national inmate population. New York Rikers Island, which has a significant mentally ill inmate population, serves as one of the nation’s largest de-facto mental institutions. There, few received any treatment until officials overhauled its services earlier this year — including providing more resources for inmates along every step of the intake process.

“What we are talking about is unprecedented, a culture shift in the way we think about and treat people who suffer from serious mental illness, who are also violent,” the first lady told a CBS New York affiliate this week.