De Blasio Bolsters New York City’s Plan to Fight Mental Illness

Faced with pressure from the media and declining voter approval of his handling of homelessness, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio proposed more services and police intervention to treat mentally ill people who pose a danger to themselves and others.

The city, which in June added $1 billion to the $5 billion budgeted for homelessness over the next four years, will spend an additional $22 million on NYC Safe, a plan he unveiled Thursday that would coordinate mental-health care, homeless services and law-enforcement agencies to tackle the issue.

“It is our sacred mission to address a broken mental health system and to revolutionize how we care for all those who are struggling,” de Blasio said in a prepared statement. “That includes the small percentage of those with mental illness that, left untreated, are at risk of committing violence against themselves or others.”

The mayor presented his plan in the format of a City Hall panel discussion that included his wife, Chirlane McCray, an advocate of programs for the mentally ill. The announcement came after weeks of New York Post headlines and television reports describing incidents public urination, bathing in public fountains, the return of aggressive panhandlers and other quality-of-life issues.

For de Blasio, the first Democrat to run City Hall in 20 years, the perceived rise of homelessness in the largest U.S. city has challenged his premise that progressive policies would best improve the quality of life for all New Yorkers, including the 21 percent who are poor.

Voter Disapproval

A Quinnipiac University poll reported Wednesday that voters oppose his re-election in 2017 by 47 percent to 41 percent, with 53 percent unhappy with his handling of poverty and homelessness.

The administration’s plan would deploy mental-health intervention teams to help a few hundred of the most dangerous individuals in homes, on the street, in jails, shelters or in police custody by offering “intensive high-quality treatment.”

It would also enhance security and clinical staff at shelters and more aggressively enforce laws that allow judges to require outpatient treatment for people with “serious mental illness,” the mayor’s office said in a summary of the program.

Elizabeth Glazer, who heads the city Office of Criminal Justice, said the strategy would be “equipping both law enforcement and clinicians with real-time information and more tools so that we can respond nimbly with the right approach at the right time to prevent future crises and violence.”

Great Depression

The city has reached its highest levels of homelessness since the Great Depression of the 1930s, according to the Coalition for the Homeless, with 58,761 -- including 23,692 children -- sleeping each night in shelters. There’s no accurate count of the unsheltered street-person population, most of whom are physically or mentally ill men who beg for money, the coalition says on its website.

The mayor says the shelter population has declined by at least 2,000 since hitting a high point last year, and that the increased presence of vagrants is partly due to warm weather and the high cost of housing. Homelessness increased after the 2008 financial crisis and subsequent recession, as federal, state and city governments cut funding for subsidized housing and other support, de Blasio has said.

Part of the mayor’s plan will be to use specially trained police to approach mentally ill persons on city streets and encourage them to seek services and shelter. He and Police Commissioner Bill Bratton presented some of the department’s plans at a news conference at police headquarters last week.

“One of the reasons you’re seeing so much above ground is we’ve been very aggressive below ground,” Bratton said. “There’s been a concerted effort working with homeless advocates groups, working with the city’s Department of Homeless Services, police officers going out with social workers, to get them out of the subways and hopefully get them into treatment.”

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