Help on the subways (photo: Michael Appleton / Mayoral Photography Office)
As he takes charge of New York City government, new mayor Eric Adams seems to know that it is not acceptable to allow homeless people living on the streets and on the subway to vegetate and sleep in unsanitary conditions. Many people in these situations clearly have serious mental and physical health problems that are in urgent need of attention.
Several measures must be taken as quickly as possible to come to the aid of these people and to make the city a safer, cleaner and more livable place for all.
The current standard by which a person can be interned for psychiatric treatment is that the person poses a threat to themselves or to others. But this has been interpreted too narrowly, and we currently have both tools, such as a better use of Kendra’s Law by the city and the judiciary to enforce treatment, and an amendment to the Law on civil engagement.
For the latter, a common sense approach has been proposed by Dr. Loree Sutton, a former military psychiatrist who served as commissioner of the New York City Department of Veterans Affairs. She suggested that the Civil Engagement Act be amended so that people with severe mental illness can access hospitalization services before they present immediate danger to themselves or others. Of course, we also need to stop the elimination of psychiatric beds and reverse the trend to dramatically increase the number of these beds given the thousands of beds that have been shed over the past decades.
In addition, health services need to be improved in shelters and once again we need to increase the number of reception centers that allow people to get off the streets quickly and receive food, clothing, showers, medical attention and talking to a social worker. A drop-in nurse can quickly diagnose an urgent medical problem and call an ambulance. We now only have three of these centers in Manhattan.
It is estimated that there are 1,600 homeless people living in the metro. Many attempts to convince this population to seek help and shelter elsewhere have met with only moderate success. It’s time to think outside the box and set up makeshift visitor centers at some of the larger and more frequently used subway stations such as Grand Central, Times Square, 34th Street Penn Station, Union Square, Atlantic Avenue and others. It may also be a good idea to install some at certain end-of-line stops.
It wouldn’t take too much time or money to tie up the little-used parts of these cavernous stations and set up chairs and tables, food and water stations, and distribute clean clothes. These centers should also be staffed with nurses who could examine and treat the homeless to some extent, including possibly the provision of life-saving vaccines.
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep trying to move the homeless to Safe Haven shelters or supportive housing, but it could be a first step in getting them to access the system. In addition to establishing these metro visitor centers, we have a perfect opportunity to increase the number of surface locations with many commercial spaces left empty over the past year, especially in hard hit areas such as as downtown and Hell’s Kitchen.
Our new mayor should immediately start taking action to reduce homelessness on the streets and the metro by creating these centers, doing a lot for the sick and in need and for the whole city.
Robert Mascali is a former deputy commissioner in the New York City Department of Homelessness Services and vice president for supportive housing for women in need.