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How to Truly Help the Homeless

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How to Truly Help the Homeless

New York Daily News October 9, 2019
Health PolicyMental Illness
Urban PolicyNYC

Expand Kendra’s Law to reach those in need and avert future tragedies

Four homeless New Yorkers were killed on Saturday morning. They were bludgeoned to death with a metal pole as they slept on the streets of Chinatown. The suspect, who has confessed to the crimes, is another homeless man, Randy Rodriguez Santos, just 24 years old, with at least 14 prior arrests and likely needing mental health care that he never received.

How, in a city such as New York, with multi-billion dollar budgets for mental health and homelessness programs, could such a tragedy occur? The main reason is that Mayor de Blasio and his wife have imposed a directionless mental health plan on the city that basically ignores the seriously ill in favor of improving “mental wellness” (whatever that is) in the masses.

Called Thrive NYC, it dumps money into poorly defined and often poorly run programs that gave him great talking points for his failed presidential campaign but provided little help to people with serious mental illness. Except for huffing and puffing, Speaker Corey Johnson and the rest of the City Council have let the mayor and first lady get away with it.

New York does have a program that might have prevented the tragedy, but in the last year de Blasio has cut down the number of people in it by 10%. Less than half the estimated number of people who should be in it are in it.

It’s called Kendra’s Law, and it does two things that are important: It compels seriously mentally ill individuals with a history of homelessness or incarceration to comply with treatment, and it forces the city to provide services to those who would benefit from it the most, but are usually sent to the back of the line. Almost 40% of the most seriously mentally ill in New York receive zero treatment.

While it is unclear if Santos is mentally ill, his erratic behavior led others to believe he is. He had multiple arrests — four of them in the past year alone — and a previous history of violence. His own mother was afraid of him.

Kendra’s Law is a program that works. It has been shown to decrease homelessness by over 70%. If the law had been invoked in Santos’ case, perhaps his mother would have felt safe with him at home and not felt compelled for her own safety to kick him out.

Data from the New York State Office of Mental Health shows Kendra’s Law reduces arrests and incarceration in excess of 80% for those in it. Another study found that individuals in it are four times less likely to commit violence than the untreated seriously mentally ill.

We don’t know if Santos had ever been considered for placement in Kendra’s Law. But would we be talking about four dead New Yorkers if Santos had been put in a program that reduces homelessness, arrest, incarceration and violence, all things that affected him?

The City Council should go around de Blasio and McCray and insist the number of people in Kendra’s Law be expanded substantially.

How? By requiring the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to start evaluating all seriously mentally ill people being discharged from Rikers; all seriously mentally ill leaving shelters; and all mentally ill patients being discharged from city hospitals after an involuntary commitment. Those are the three highest risk groups; evaluate them all to see if they are eligible for Kendra’s Law and get them into it if they are.

For their own sake and for ours, we should focus on those groups, not shun them. The Council should also insist that Kendra’s Law be advertised and publicized and that the city’s mental health call center (1-888-NYC-WELL) provide assistance to families who want their loved ones considered for Kendra’s Law.

We can do more to prevent these types of tragedies. We know how. At least everyone but the mayor does.

This piece originally appeared at the New York Daily News


DJ Jaffe is an adjunct fellow at the Manhattan Institue, executive director of Mental Illness Policy Org., and author of Insane Consequences: How the Mental Health Industry Fails the Mentally Ill.

Photo by  Drew Angerer/Getty Images