Mass Incarceration Homelessness NYC

Unhoused New Yorkers need more resources, not more police

By Malika Lubell-Doughtie on December, 15 2022

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Malika Lubell-Doughtie

Malika Lubell-Doughtie is the Assistant Director of Outreach for Manhattan at Common Justice.

Mayor Adams announced a seemingly flippant plan to “help” street homeless New Yorkers who are struggling with mental health complexities by forcing individuals to hospitals for “assessments.” Adams claims he wants to help those struggling with mental illness, but his declaration to involuntarily hospitalize the unhoused directly contradicts the trust building and nuanced care plans that mental health professionals advocate are necessary to truly assist those in need.  

Adams emphasized his desire to create clarity for police about what actions are legally permissible and under what conditions. He joked that he brought his lawyer with him for this purpose. Brendan McGuire, Chief Counsel to the New York City Mayor highlighted that there are Mental Health and Hygiene provisions under which people who are a “threat to themselves or to others” may be involuntarily committed after a diagnosis by a clinician. Adams relies upon these pre-existing provisions to now empower police to take more action, which according to his speech, involves forcibly placing people in hospitals for assessments or having a doctor conduct a telemedicine visit to assess individuals. The plan itself remains unclear but one thing is certain, it involves more police action. Adams has further sanctioned police using physical force, which has a proven track record of resulting in violence, and even death, for those in a mental health crisis.   

Rather than hatching his own ill-informed plan, the Mayor needs to spend more time talking directly to experts on mental health issues and homelessness. The Mayor’s mental health “plan” failed to center the individual who will be most impacted by his announcement; the unhoused living with mental complexities.  

As Adams describes, these individuals are not invisible to others, but rather are often another passenger on the subway or someone else waiting for the train. Adams breezed over the fact that many city outreach workers have had contact and are working to build relationships and trust with many street homeless New Yorkers who struggle with mental health complexities. Those workers will tell you that the process is not one-size-fits-all, or swift. Trained professionals working with unhoused people and mental illness know that the pathway to serving someone struggling is through compassion and consistency, not airily dystopian police action in which one’s bodily autonomy and personal freedom are attacked.  

The wantonness for which Adams suggests involuntary hospitalization indicates ignorance towards the history of forced hospitalization, its efficacy, and the trauma inflicted by such an action. Psychiatrists and doctors have spoken about the negative impact involuntary hospitalization can have directly on an individual’s mental health. Mental health community advocates have fought for a move away from such extreme actions, advocating for the recognition of the autonomy of an individual who is struggling with mental complexities, their right to freedom and choice in their health decisions despite those not always being aligned with professional opinions.  

Adams’s authorization to swiftly, involuntarily hospitalize, torpedoes his initial claims of empathy and compassion as his half-baked policy is not informed by those it seeks to assist. In order to truly help those who are struggling, Adams should focus on the resources that experts have been begging for assistance in obtaining; affordable housing and more highly trained direct-service mental health professionals. Neither of these necessities can be substituted by the police and forced hospitalization.


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