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Subway shovings, sucker punches and slashings by raving homeless madmen have rightly grabbed headlines and put New Yorkers on edge. What’s most infuriating is that it’s all largely preventable: City government used to know how to protect the public; we should be doing better now — including for these troubled individuals themselves — not worse.
In a 2015 Post column, former Mayor Rudy Giuliani explained his approach to homeless individuals sleeping in public spaces as a mix of sensitivity and tough love: “It’s always best if the police officer is accompanied by a social worker — as often was the case — to explain to a homeless person that coming in for an evaluation is better than walking all night because, if the person refuses to come, he will be followed and not allowed to sleep outside anywhere else.”
The city, in short, used cops and social workers together to cajole the homeless into city shelters — making it clear to those who refused shelter that they couldn’t stay on the street, on a park bench or in the subway.
Rudy’s team knew getting distressed people off the streets would be difficult, requiring steely determination. But its top priority was always public safety and order, an approach largely maintained in the Bloomberg years.
Mayor Bill de Blasio and his fellow progressives in the City Council and state Legislature, by contrast, put a priority on undoing Giuliani’s “cruel” successes: If a homeless person won’t move on nowadays, cops are often left to throw up their hands and do the moving on themselves. And social workers without police support can only do so much and often rightly refuse to risk dealing with dangerous-seeming cases.
And even when the mentally ill do enter a city shelter, they rarely get treatment there, since the entrance policy is now “no questions asked” and the mayor’s homeless czar insists the real problem is simply a lack of housing and society’s failures to fully recognize the “rights” of the homeless.
It’s reached a new crisis now for many reasons: As the pandemic began, the mayor gave “compassionate release” to thousands of mentally ill jail inmates. And when he decided to cut $1 billion from the NYPD budget in response to “Defund” protests, the department’s Homeless Outreach Unit took a hit, which led to hundreds of reported cases falling through the safety net.
As The Post’s Nolan Hicks reported, “Nearly 2,500 complaints to 311 about vagrants desperately needing help or causing problems have been closed without any action by cops who no longer have jurisdiction.” But when calls to 311 about troubled homeless don’t get answered in timely and effective fashion, tragedy can follow — as in the case of Michael Medlock, who shoved a man onto the tracks last November.
And other people stop calling 311 or resort to 911, tying up the emergency line for what’s often not an emergency.
Similarly, Alexander Wright, the shelter resident accused of sucker-punching an Asian woman in Chinatown last month, slipped through the cracks despite his long history of bizarre and violent acts. And he’s just the latest in a long string.
Bottom line: The city must be ready — and willing — to use every tool available to force seriously mentally ill homeless individuals to get treatment. Notably, it has a tool that wasn’t available for most of the Giuliani years: Kendra’s Law, passed in 1999 in the wake of a deadly subway shoving, which lets judges and doctors order the hospitalization of untreated people who are clearly threats to themselves and others, and compel compliance with medication orders even as an outpatient. When invoked it has proved successful in reducing relapses, preventing violence and, most important, helping sick people get the support and shelter they need.
But de Blasio, sadly, pretends that his wife’s ThriveNYC initiative is the real answer, despite its notorious lack of results.
With enough will, the city can repeat Giuliani’s success and do better: not just getting dangerous homeless off the streets, but getting them the help they need. While some of the shelter system remains shoddy, it has far more decent facilities than it did back then, including far more “supportive housing” units that are designed to support those with major mental illness.
It’s time to start moving backward and do right by these supremely troubled people and by the public as a whole.
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