Photo Credit: Photo by Marc Gronich
Mayor Eric Adams announcing a crackdown on the homeless and mentally ill sleeping, eating and begging for money in the New York City subway system. To his side is Governor Kathy Hochul.

This week New York City Mayor Eric Adams started a crackdown on the homeless and mentally ill sleeping, eating and begging for money in the New York City subway system.

“We’re going to enforce the rules,” Adams said. “No more smoking, no more doing drugs, no more sleeping, no more doing barbecues on the system, no more just doing whatever you want. Those days are over. We all realize this is a crisis and we all know that it is inhumane.”

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Adams said using the subway system is very simple.

“Swipe your MetroCard, ride the system and get off at your destination. That’s what this administration is saying,” Adams, a former transit cop, said. “This is not about arresting people. It’s about arresting a problem. We’re going to correct the conditions. That’s what we’re going to do in this plan.”

In an attempt to demonstrate solidarity, joining Adams for a news conference were the heads of several agencies: the New York City Department of Homeless Services, New York City Department of Mental Hygiene, New York City Health Department, New York Police Department Commissioner, the chairman and CEO of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, president of the transit police union, community-based providers, a former homeless transit rider, the New York state Mental Health Commissioner and New York Governor Kathy Hochul.

“We need to talk about what’s involved with removal and commitment for the highest need individuals. Individuals who demonstrated they are not capable of taking care of themselves. That’s a cry for help,” Hochul said as she gave her assessment and justification to solve the problem. “People who are suffering from the extreme symptoms can be a danger to themselves and be a danger to others. We need to issue regulations that will give those who witness this behavior, those who are in the subways, the law enforcement and other individuals, our teams that we talked about bringing together. Give the experts more authority to take some steps to help people out of those circumstances and into a place so they can begin the healing.

“This is long overdue. We see New Yorkers suffering in plain sight. People long thought the rules and regulations require them to be just left there and ignored. That’s not how we treat G-d’s children. We have to give them hope, give them treatment, recognize they are there because they need help. We will be issuing new regulations identifying what we can do to get them the help they need before something happens to them or an innocent bystander.”

Then Hochul opened up the state’s pocketbook and pledged to deliver needed financial resources to help solve the problem.

“We have about 1,000 beds that should be fully functional. We have 600 beds in New York City alone. We’ve agreed to an increase in the Medicaid reimbursement, the state’s share will be a 10 percent increase and we’re asking the federal government to match that. That’s a 20 percent increase in how our hospitals are reimbursed when it comes to providing psychiatric beds,” Hochul said. “When we overcome that barrier, the gap between psychiatric and non-psychiatric beds and make it closer, that creates the right incentive to say yes, let’s get them filled with the people who need the most help. We’re also proposing $27.5 million statewide, an increase over what we have right now.

“Also, supportive housing beds. Another $12 million for 500 supportive housing beds. Here’s the challenge. You can have all the beds you want but if they are not staffed by professionals, it serves no purpose.

“We have a shortage of healthcare workers. We have a severe shortage of psychiatrists and psychiatric nurses. We’re putting nearly $10 million on the table for recruitment and retention even helping them pay off their student loans. We’re saying, come from other states. Come from elsewhere. Go to this profession because your fellow New Yorkers need you. [We will provide] up to $150,000 in loan forgiveness for these individuals. We know it’s a big problem but shame on us if at this moment in time we don’t turn over every single stone and find every possible way to deal with this to make people feel safe, that the laws are being enforced. It’s critically important. Even codes of conduct – there are rules that have just been ignored for far too long,” Hochul added.

Then the big money was pledged as part of the state budget, which is due by April 1.

“By the end of March, I’m hoping we’ll pass a plan that will have $25 billion committed to over 100,000 affordable housing units, of which 10,000 will be supportive housing,” Hochul pledged. “That is not a short-term solution but that is the longer-term solution. I do believe as the pandemic abates the fear of going into the shelters, which need to be made much better themselves, but for the last two years the thought of going into a congregate setting during a pandemic is fearful.”

The head of the MTA called this effort, if successful, “a game-changer” even though ridership has increased.

“We’re coming back fast from Covid. We had three million riders, literally, day after day. That’s a 50 percent increase from where we were just a few weeks ago at the depths of the omicron surge. We want to keep up that momentum. It’s critical not only to the financial health of the MTA but it’s key to the larger economic recovery of the city and the state,” said Janno Lieber, chairman and CEO of the MTA. “Making sure we have a safe system is the key to winning riders back. As important as the commitment the governor made possible to keep fares flat, not to raise the fares this year, because we know the New Yorkers don’t need an increase in costs as they try to find the way back to normal life and normal commuting.

“It’s not dignified or compassionate to let people fend for themselves in the subways or to expect subway riders to just deal with it. That’s changing. The subway rule violation cannot be ignored. That means, as the mayor pointed out, no more open drug use, no more smoking, no more oversized shopping carts and no more sprawling out across the platform. People who are abusive to our staff, to the heroic transit workers or to riders who are yelling and ranting, we want them to get help. We know they must be helped but they can’t stay in the subway system.

“We all have a part to play and yet even the public, our riders, can get involved. As the saying goes, ‘If you see something, say something.’ If you see someone who needs help, call 311. If it’s an emergency, call 911. You can also let the MTA staff know by using the help points on every platform or by messaging the MTA on WhatsApp. We actually look at it all the time,” Lieber, who is Jewish, said.

“Going upstream to feed the crises. That is the essence of public health,” said Dr. Ashwin Vasan, acting New York City health commissioner. “Someone struggling with unmet mental health needs, sometimes severe and disabling, risks descending into crisis but for care, support and connection. We must elevate humanity for those experiencing mental illness by meeting them where they are with the services they need to address the challenges they face at the time that they need it. People, places and policies, the three P’s, we’re going to push our mental health care and support system forward.”

Adams addressed the issue that evicting the homeless and mentally ill from the underground tunnels will drive these individuals back to the streets.

“We can’t stop people from sleeping in the street. We need to reexamine that,” Adams stated. “We can send a strong message that you cannot place tents, you cannot do things that are considered to be inappropriate. There are things we can do so that we don’t enable those conditions. This is an evolving plan. We gotta get it right but what we’re not going to do is to ignore the things that are feeding this crisis.”

The predecessors to Hochul and Adams, former Governor Andrew Cuomo and former Mayor Bill de Blasio both worked at the federal Housing and Urban Development with Cuomo being the head of the agency. Their reported feud as governor and mayor mainly prevented the persistent and ever-present problem with the homeless and mentally ill on the subway from being properly resolved during their tenure.

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Marc Gronich is news director of Statewide News Service. He also operates the website JBizTechValley.com. He has been covering government and politics since 1981. His Albany Beat column appears monthly in The Jewish Press.