Laura Nahmias | August 7, 2015
Mayor Bill de Blasio’s new $22.4 million plan to serve the violent and severely mentally ill, some of them homeless, drew a tentatively positive response from homeless advocates hoping the city would offer more detailed plans and funds for housing.
“We’re at a point where the numbers are out of control,” Jennifer Flynn of VOCAL NY said, in an interview.
The administration’s new initiative, dubbed NYC Safe, would provide intensive therapy to the severely mentally ill and likely serve just a few hundred people, but the mayor said Thursday that it’s just the narrow first step in a larger mental health and homelessness initiative set to come this fall.
Homeless advocates commended the move—which comes amid more generalized pressure on the administration over crime and quality of life issues—but also said they were waiting for more.
Coalition for the Homeless president Mary Brosnahan praised the mayor’s recognition of the “magnitude of the homeless crisis,” saying de Blasio has taken a much more “informed and practical perspective” on homelessness than former mayors Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg. She called the NYC Safe initiative a “critical first step.”
But the program’s viability will depend on stable housing for the city’s homeless, she added.
“A major commitment of housing with onsite support services for New Yorkers with mental illness must come in short order, if we hope to see any lasting difference in the visible suffering we all encounter each day,” she said.
Flynn, who is also a member of an umbrella group called Homes for Every New Yorker that is pushing for more supportive housing for the homeless, agreed.
“I’d hope that housing would be part of any plan they announce,” she said.
Flynn praised the de Blasio administration’s work in trying to boost the use of the voucher programs for landlords who house the homeless or mentally ill, but she said those efforts only go so far given the city’s record numbers of homeless people.
The announcement of NYC Safe on Thursday came as de Blasio faces criticism for a widely perceived rise in the visibility of homeless and mentally ill people in the city, which has been a running motif in recent administration coverage in the tabloids.
At a roundtable to announce the plan Thursday, de Blasio took pains to stress that the initiative would apply to all severely mentally ill and violent people, not just homeless ones.
“Some in the media have tried to portray this as about homeless first and foremost,” he said. “No, it is about people who have mental health challenges and are prone to violence. They are a concern to all of us, whether they live in an apartment building, a private home, a shelter, or on the street.”
De Blasio promised that violence involving people who are severely mentally ill would go down under the new initiative.
“I expect that, as this fully progresses, it will reduce violent crime,” he said. “If I went over with you the different incidents that you guys have had to report on this year, where there was a known history of mental health problems and a known history of violence — you know, some of those people would still be alive if the problem had been caught,” he said.
The mayor’s initiative includes no specific programs for mentally ill veterans who may be homeless. During a Thursday roundtable, de Blasio first deflected a question on veteran homelessness, saying it wasn’t germane to the discussion, and then, pressed a second time, said the city is on track to meet its goals to end veteran homelessness by year’s end.
“There is not a separate push,” he said. “There is an effort to end veteran homelessness for all veterans, whether they have a mental health problem or not, whether they have had trouble with the law or not — we are committed to making sure that none of our veterans are homeless.”
According to data released by City Hall in April, there are at least 990 homeless military veterans in the city. The number overall has dropped by 40 percent since 2013, with the majority of veterans living in city shelters.
Veterans’ advocates in the city have argued that de Blasio’s policies as mayor haven’t done enough to address mental illness among veterans, who face high rates of suicide and post-traumatic stress disorder.