Mayor Bill de Blasio and First Lady Chirlane McCray work together to bring awareness to NYC’s mental health issue.
By Trone Dowd
Last week, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced his latest city wide initiative that he hopes will help mend the small but noteworthy portion of the New York City homeless population suffering from mental illness on the streets. Dubbing the initiative, “NYC Safe,” De Blasio describes the $22.4 million program as an “evidence-driven public safety and public health program that will help prevent violence.”
The impetus for the program is simple. An annual investment meant to provide help and support to individuals with serious mental illnesses. The mayor hopes that NYC Safe will change the way officials deal with mentally ill individuals. He also hopes that the initiative will retroactively make those communities with higher numbers of the mentally ill residents safer by preemptively getting them the help they need before any violent or harmful behavior arises.
“It is our sacred mission to address a broken mental health system and to revolutionize how we care for all those who are struggling,” de Blasio said. “That includes the small percentage of those with mental illness that, left untreated, are at risk of committing violence against themselves or others. Too many have literally lost their lives to untreated mental illness. NYC Safe will protect our city and save people from violence and suffering by making sure New Yorkers who need care will receive it, stick to it, and keep themselves and others safe.”
The investment, which will be a partnership between local health care agencies and law enforcement, will enacted multiple reforms which include providing comprehensive and real-time visual information to officials on where and how to intervene, informing individuals in the community of ongoing treatments, increasing efficiency and communication in law enforcement and health care response and of course, deploying appropriate long term treatment to individuals in need.
The initiative comes just on the heels of the Nashville theater shooting that made national news on Aug. 5. The shooter, 29-year-old Vincente David Montano, who pepper sprayed the movie audience and slashed one movie goer in the shoulder with a hatchet, was committed to a mental institution on four separate occasions over the last 11 years and was arrested for resisting arrest and assault in 2004. Just two weeks before the Nashville shooting, 59-year-old John Russell Houser, who according to court documents suffered from mental illness issues as far back as the ‘80s, killed two people at a showing of the film “Trainwreck” down in Louisiana.
This past April here in New York City, Queens homeless shelter director Ana Charle was abducted, forced to strip, and fatally shot in the Bronx by a former shelter resident when she tried to flee for help. The shooter, 39-year-old West Spruill, had several run-ins with the law dating as far back as 1993 and was mentally ill.
These multiple incidents in recent months undoubtedly played a role in NYC Safe’s implementation. Many New York City officials came forward to share their thoughts on the mental health program.
“Untreated serious mental illness can increase the risk of violent behavior in some individuals, but more importantly, it also prevents them from leading a fulfilling life,” Health Commissioner Dr. Mary Bassett said. “This initiative brings mental health teams closer to the ground, to reach people who need this connection to care, but face challenges engaging in adequate treatment, including their housing status or involvement with the criminal justice system.”
Chair of the Committee on Mental Health and Bronx Community Board 11 Council Member Andrew Cohen, told the mayor that he applauded the effort to take on the issue and “provide services to the city’s most difficult to serve.” He also said that the City Council will “ensure this initiative receives all the resources necessary to achieve success,”
Even Police Commissioner Bill Bratton came forward to show his support for the initiative, stating that he applaudes the Mayor and First Lady Chirlane McCray for supporting this move to improve mental illness response.
In Southeast Queens, homelessness and mental health issue has been rampant. As a matter of fact, Jamaica Queens holds 10 of the Queens’ 21 homeless shelters. Community Board 12 Chairwoman Adrienne Adams has long requested a moratorium on opening homeless shelters in the Southeast Queens area without much luck.
“We’re definitely sympathetic to the need for services,” Chairwoman Adams told the Southeast Press last December. “Our resources are stretched and we’ve had enough. It’s more about equity within the entire Borough.”
Councilman Donovan Richards of District 31, which accounts for Laurelton, parts of Springfield Gardens, Far Rockaway and a number of other areas in Southeast Queens also felt strongly about the initiative.
“Mayor de Blasio’s plan to treat violent mentally ill homeless is a step in the right direction,” Richards said. “We should not be demonizing New Yorkers who suffer from mental illness. We need to focus on finding help for those who need it the most, while ensuring the quality of life of residents across the city.”
Kevin Livingston, founder of “100 Suits for 100 Men” and an overall active member of the Southeast Queens community, noted that homelessness, and by association mental illness, has been a huge problem for the area. Livingston believes that the mayor’s plans to reform how the city deals with mental health victims is exactly the type of action Queens communities need.
“It is going to be absolutely amazing and imperative to downtown Jamaica. The sharing of information with the NYPD and public servants will help enable the cops to do their job and identify individuals with mental health issues,” Livingston said.
Jamaica has seen an influx of homeless in the past few years due to the concentration of homeless shelters nearby.
“Jamaica currently has along four blocks, from 160th to 164th, they have about five homeless shelters. One for men, one for women and domestic violence and that’s along 89th Ave. That becomes very problematic for individuals with mental health issues because you don’t know how to identify them. There have been countless assaults that have been happening along that avenue,” Livingston continued.
He’s not exaggerating either. As of Aug. 2, 2015 alone, there have been 608 felonious assaults in the Southeast Queens area combined according to statistics provided from the 103, 106 and 113 precincts Compstat reports.
“I think that this initiative will be really good for helping the NYPD to continue to do their job and bringing down violence in our community,” Livingston concluded.
According to the daily shelter census report from the Department of Homeless Services, over 56,000 individuals are living in homeless shelters across New York City. Of that figure, nearly 40,000 of them, or 70.6%, make up families with children. The NYC Safe initiative hopes to keep these individuals safe from those who unfortunately pose a danger to them.
Mental health has been a hot button issue that the Mayor has tackled for a quite some time now. Prior to the NYC Safe initiative, de Blasio and his administration pledged $323 million over the next three years towards funding and improving mental health programs in New York City.