City’s $22 Million Mental Health Plan Doesn’t Quite Tackle Homelessness as Advertised

A homeless woman in Manhattan. (Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
A homeless woman in Manhattan. (Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

The lead up to the “unprecedented” announcement Mayor Bill de Blasio would make yesterday was quite clear, at least according to two daily newspapers: the Democratic mayor had a plan to tackle homelessness.

Both the New York Times and Wall Street Journal reported on Wednesday that Mr. de Blasio’s $22 million initiative would specifically aid the rising number of homeless people.

“On Thursday, Mayor Bill de Blasio is set to appear with his wife, Chirlane McCray, to announce a $22 million mental health initiative that his administration says will aid the homeless,” the Times reported.

But reporters were surprised to learn on Thursday that the $22 million plan was not specifically about the homeless problem. Mr. de Blasio and a cadre of city officials insisted at a City Hall media roundtable that the initiative would be for helping a small subset of the general population: violent mentally ill people who need treatment. Whether they have a roof over their heads or not wasn’t the point, Mr. de Blasio said.

“Some in the media have tried to portray this as about homeless first and foremost. No, it is about people who have mental health challenges and are prone to violence,” Mr. de Blasio said. “They are a concern to all of us, whether they live in an apartment building, a private home, a shelter, or on the street.”

It was an odd statement coming off the heels of two preview stories which reported Mr. de Blasio clearly wanted to address homelessness, first and foremost.

“Mayor Plans New Homeless Initiative,” read a Journal headline from Wednesday. “De Blasio, Facing Criticism, Is Taking On Homelessness With $22 Million Initiative,” blared a Times headline on the same day.

So what happened? It’s not really clear. A de Blasio spokeswoman did not immediately return a request for comment for this story. The announcement of the mental health initiative, which will send experts to New York City’s homeless shelters and to other places to treat mentally ill people who exhibit violent behavior, was delayed a day. The original plan had been to roll out the initiative on Wednesday.

Karen Hinton, a de Blasio spokeswoman, simply said the announcement was pushed off to “finalize an aspect of the policy.” No further explanation was given.

Did reporters simply misinterpret what the de Blasio administration was going to do? They don’t think so, though there’s always that possibility.

Mr. de Blasio said the plan, known as “NYC Safe,” is just one element of a much larger mental health plan that will be announced, in full, sometime this fall. “This is a subset of a much bigger mental health reform plan that you’ll hear about from the first lady in the fall. This is just the first of many pieces,” he said.

Agencies including the Department of Homeless Services and the NYPD will share information about mentally ill people with a history of violence to make sure they are being treated, city officials said. Roughly $5 million of the funding will go toward increasing security around and inside some homeless shelters.

The initiative will create citywide teams of clinicians, police officers and other professionals to help groups of people who have untreated mental illnesses. The Department of Health and Mental Hygiene will have a team that monitors the treatment received.

The Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice will gather information from several agencies about those who need to be assessed and helped. The Homeless Services Department or Department of Health would report someone displaying violent tendencies.

Officials said the city of Miami had implemented a similar program with success, though never on this scale.

“If you think about some of the most troubling cases that happened this year, where someone was of harm to themselves or someone else, a lot of those people lived in stable housing,” Mr. de Blasio said. “So let’s be very clear. There are people who, their address is stable, they have a known mental health challenge, they have a known history of violence, and absolutely no follow-through occurs.” City’s $22 Million Mental Health Plan Doesn’t Quite Tackle Homelessness as Advertised