Acting to address “a crisis we see all around us” toward the end of a year that has seen a string of high-profile crimes involving homeless people, Mayor Eric Adams announced a major push on Tuesday to remove people with severe, untreated mental illness from the city’s streets and subways.
Mr. Adams, who has made clearing homeless encampments a priority since taking office in January, said the effort would require involuntarily hospitalizing people who were a danger to themselves, even if they posed no risk of harm to others, arguing the city had a “moral obligation” to help them.
“The common misunderstanding persists that we cannot provide involuntary assistance unless the person is violent,” Mr. Adams said in an address at City Hall. “Going forward, we will make every effort to assist those who are suffering from mental illness.”
The mayor’s announcement comes at a heated moment in the national debate about rising crime and the role of the police, especially in dealing with people who are already in fragile mental health. Republicans, as well as tough-on-crime Democrats like Mr. Adams, a former police captain, have argued that growing disorder calls for more aggressive measures. Left-leaning advocates and officials who dominate New York politics say that deploying the police as auxiliary social workers may do more harm than good.
Other large cities have struggled with how to help homeless people, in particular those dealing with mental illness. In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom recently signed a law that could force some homeless people with disorders like schizophrenia into treatment. Many states have laws that allow for involuntary outpatient treatment, and Washington State allows people to be committed to hospitals if a judge finds that they pose a threat to themselves or others.
Officials in New York said the city would roll out training immediately to police officers, Emergency Medical Services staff and other medical personnel to “ensure compassionate care.” But the city’s new directive on the policy acknowledges that “case law does not provide extensive guidance regarding removals for mental health evaluations based on short interactions in the field.”
The policy immediately raised questions about who, exactly, would be swept up in it, and some advocates for people with mental illness warned it could face legal challenges.
Existing state laws allow both the police and medical workers to authorize involuntary hospitalization of people whose behavior poses a threat of “serious harm” to themselves or others. Brendan McGuire, chief counsel to the mayor, said on Tuesday that workers would assess people in public spaces “case by case” to see whether they were able to provide basic needs such as food, shelter and health care for themselves.
The city directive states that “unawareness or delusional misapprehension of surroundings” or “delusional misapprehension of physical condition or health” could be grounds for hospitalization.