NYC plans to stop homeless sheltering in subways

Mayor Eric Adams and Governor Kathy Hochul announced an aggressive plan on Friday to deploy police officers and mental health workers to the New York City subway, pledging to remove more than 1,000 homeless sheltering there. regularly, some of which have contributed to the escalation of violence. and harassment in the system.

Starting Monday, officials said, there will be a zero-tolerance policy — enforced by the hundreds of officers already patrolling the system — for people who sleep sprawled on train seats or in stations, or for other violations of often flouted subway rules. conduct, including littering, unruly behavior and lingering at a station for more than an hour.

Dozens of mental health professionals with the power to order the involuntary hospitalization of people they deem dangerous to themselves or others will be added to system-wide outreach teams.

“No more doing what you want,” Mr. Adams told a press conference during a Lower Manhattan subway station. “Those days are over. Swipe your MetroCard, use the system, get off at your destination. That’s what this administration says.

The plan, which aims to end the decades-old practice of people using the nation’s busiest public transit system for shelter, comes as a spike in violent crime in the system, including several incidents publicized stampede, made public safety a paramount concern. for many commuters, with some saying it made them avoid the metro.

Since plummeting at the start of the pandemic, attendance has been slow to rebound, recently hitting just over half of pre-pandemic levels, and the system faces a perilous financial future. The metro’s long-term viability depends on more commuters returning.

The plan also comes in the wake of a horrific crime at the Times Square subway station last month, when a 40-year-old woman, Michelle Alyssa Go, was pushed in front of a train and a homeless man with background of schizophrenia was charged with his murder.

Even though Mr. Adams has acknowledged that “the vast majority of homeless and mentally ill people are not dangerous” to subway riders, his plan to kick these people out of the transit system makes no such distinction. .

In addition to enforcement measures, which drew immediate criticism from homeless advocates, the plan also includes changes designed to more effectively connect homeless people, many of whom suffer from mental illness, substance abuse or both, to mental health services. and permanent housing.

In 2021, rates of violent crime in the subway per million weekday passengers increased almost everywhere compared to 2019. Criminal assaults in the system increased by nearly 25%, despite the decline in ridership fueled by the pandemic.

Thirty people were pushed onto the tracks in 2021, compared to 20 in 2019 and nine in 2017, police said.

“People tell me about their fear of using the system,” Adams said on Friday. “And we’re going to make sure fear isn’t the reality of New York.”

The announcement came not only from the mayor and governor, but also from the head of the transit agency, the police commissioner and city and state mental health officials, underscoring the seriousness of the problem and the central role that officials believe the metro will play in reviving the city’s economy.

Jeffrey Gural, president of GFP Real Estate, praised Mr. Adams’ approach.

“In order to bring people back to the city, which is essential, people need to feel safe on the metro because that’s how most of them get around,” said Mr Gural, whose company owns dozens of buildings in the city. “It’s that simple.”

But the plan announced Friday lacked detail and timelines, and given the chronic shortage of acceptable and affordable housing options for most people who choose to live in the metro, it was unclear where those evicted en masse would go immediately, if not the streets. There was little talk about the cost of the plan or how it would be paid for.

Some transit rider advocates said an enforcement plan that integrated health care and support services was a positive step.

“No one should feel pressured to live on the subway, and being homeless is not a crime,” said Lisa Daglian, executive director of the Transit Corporation’s Citizens’ Advisory Committee, a watchdog group . “However, these teams must take steps to be able to eliminate those who could harm themselves or others. This decades-long problem requires a long-term investment to find a solution.

But Shelly Nortz, deputy executive director for policy at the Homeless Coalition, said the plan would criminalize mental illness and homelessness.

“Repeating the failed proximity-based policing strategies of the past will not end the suffering of homeless people lying on the subway,” she said in a statement.

Ms Nortz welcomed the provisions of the plan which include increasing the number of available psychiatric inpatient beds, shelters with private rooms and supportive housing, which comes with on-site social services.

But she was skeptical of the expansion of involuntary commitment at the expense of civil liberties, at a time when there is a desperate need for what she called “timely access to voluntary inpatient and outpatient psychiatric care. , including drugs.

Warren Oates, a homeless man taking shelter from the cold at Times Square station on Friday afternoon, said police shouldn’t force people out of the subway if they don’t enter restricted areas of the system .

Mr Oates, who is in his 50s, said officers should not be ‘here to provoke’ but rather ‘just here to serve the law’.

The precise number of people who live in the metro is unknown, but an annual survey from January 2021 put the figure at around 1,300 – and that was when the system was shutting down for four hours every night for disinfection. The number of homeless people in the system is believed to have increased since then. It was estimated at around 1,700 in January 2020, before the pandemic.

The city had already increased police presence on the subway this year, deploying an additional 1,000 officers to the system in early January. A week later, two officers were at the opposite end of the platform when Ms Go was pushed to her death.

The mayor’s directive that officers enforce the code of conduct was an implicit acknowledgment that the police department had failed to do so rigorously. Mr Adams said the officers received mixed messages on the subject: encouragement to enforce the rules and condemnation when their efforts were captured on video and shared on social media.

“I’m on your back,” said Mr. Adams, who was himself a transit officer. “Do your job. That’s what you’re supposed to do.

The plan attempts to address a common complaint from homeless people and their advocates that simple “outreach,” in which a homeless person is typically offered a room in a barrack-like group shelter — an offer that is generally refused – is insufficient. The plan provides for the creation of approximately 500 new beds in private rooms.

Police officers will form teams with outreach workers and clinicians who will criss-cross stations and trains to direct the homeless and mentally ill off the transit system and to help, bringing people to the hospital when warranted.

The teams – there will be up to 30 – will focus on high-priority stations and train lines where ridership or reported crime has increased, said Keechant Sewell, the police commissioner.

The measures build on a state plan announced by Ms. Hochul last month to create similar “safe options support” teams.

Targeting the problem of untreated mental illness more broadly, the plan calls for expanding the use of Kendra’s Law, which allows a judge to order someone to undergo outpatient treatment.

The plan also calls on hospitals to reverse what has been a significant decline in the number of inpatient psychiatric beds over the past decade, which some experts say has contributed to the number of people with serious mental illness on the streets and the Subway. Ms. Hochul said the state would increase Medicaid payments to hospitals for psychiatric beds.

And the plan responds to complaints from some organizations that serve the homeless that hospital ERs are refusing to admit some psychiatric patients they find too disruptive, or releasing them before they are stable or without proper planning. which would prevent them from relapsing after their release.

Dr. Ann Marie T. Sullivan, the state’s mental health commissioner, said her agency would provide guidance to hospitals to ensure the most seriously ill patients – “a very small percentage of people” – are engaged for longer stays.

“Many rivers feed the sea of ​​homelessness,” Mr. Adams said, “and we have to dam every river if we want to solve this problem.

Ana Ley contributed report.

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