The MTA—New York City’s transit authority—is forming a new task force to develop “a detailed action plan” to address homelessness. This provides an opportunity for Governor Andrew Cuomo to show his hand as to what he thinks should be done. Mayor Bill de Blasio, for all his faults on homelessness, does have a strategy in place to which he has been adhering.
Cuomo may have more experience with homelessness than any governor in the nation. In the 1980s, he founded HELP USA, now one of the largest service providers in the area (his sister is chairman of the board). He also served, under President Clinton, as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, the lead federal agency on homelessness. Yet, as New York City’s crisis drags on, Cuomo has rarely intervened, except when he’s criticizing de Blasio’s approach.
The task force’s report is due in early September. One thing Cuomo could clear up is what role nonvoluntary approaches should play; he has sent mixed messages on this crucial but sensitive topic. Earlier this month, the governor drew fire from advocates for suggesting an enhanced role for law enforcement in addressing homelessness-related disorder on the subways. The task force press release called for a close look at “enhanced enforcement of [subway rules and regulations].” At the same time, though, the state Office of Mental Health, at Cuomo’s direction, has been steadily trimming its inpatient psychiatric care beds, even as the numbers of mentally ill homeless continue to rise. As the Treatment Advocacy Center, a mental-health advocacy group, has suggested in its “A Bed Instead” campaign, reduced use of jails and prisons to house the mentally ill may require increased use of involuntary civil commitment.
Last month, de Blasio called for more use of diversion-style efforts to deal with homelessness and the subways, though New York City already has some of the most robust alternative-to-incarceration programs anywhere in the nation. The local criminal-justice system is already emphasizing services and treatment over punishment. Diversion can be a life-changing intervention, but it works well only for certain types of offenders. Mentally ill people who commit very serious crimes aren’t going to get a treatment option; the ones who commit low-level offenses, like fare evasion, don’t face long jail time, and thus don’t give prosecutors much leverage to compel them into treatment. The most stubborn problem remains people with serious behavioral-health problems who commit nonserious offenses, continually.
In order to reckon honestly with untreated serious mental illness in the subways, the task force should be heavily staffed with criminal-justice experts and medical professionals with work experience in locked psychiatric wards of hospitals. Many mental health-care providers lack such experience with the seriously mentally ill, who too often wind up behind bars or civilly committed.
Subway chief Andy Byford, in speaking about the negative impact that homelessness has had on passenger service, has often noted that MTA can’t solve the problem on its own. No one expects the MTA to solve homelessness—which is primarily a housing, mental illness, and poverty problem—by itself. But the MTA can focus on problems such as the increase in train delays caused by vagrants wandering the tracks. To do that, the agency needs to consult less with experts in poverty services and more with those who work closely with the seriously mentally ill.