A homeless outreach worker and New York police officer assist...

A homeless outreach worker and New York police officer assist passengers found sleeping on subway cars at the 207th Street A-train station in 2020 in Manhattan. Mayor Eric Adams announced Tuesday that authorities would more aggressively intervene to help people in need of treatment. Credit: AP/John Minchillo

New York City Mayor Eric Adams' push to remove from the streets people who have untreated mental illness may trigger legislation to increase available hospital beds and provide for lengthier stays, officials said.

Adams announced Tuesday that police and emergency medical workers will seek to involuntarily hospitalize people on the streets and subways who pose a danger to themselves, even if they don’t pose a risk to others.

The Democrat said the initiative is an effort to curb crime, citing some high-profile incidents involving homeless people. But it’s sparked pushback from some advocates for the mentally ill and some defense attorneys, who question the propriety of involuntary confinement and the effectiveness of using police as de facto social workers.

Even those who support the concept say further action in Albany might be necessary.

WHAT TO KNOW

  • New York City Mayor Eric Adams' effort to remove homeless people from the streets, especially those with untreated mental illness, could trigger legislation to increase available hospital beds and lengthier stays, officials said.
  • Adams said his push is an effort to curb crime, citing some high-profile incidents involving homeless people. But the plan has sparked pushback from some advocates for the mentally ill and some defense attorneys.
  • Some state lawmakers say the plan may prompt legislation in Albany to increase available hospital beds and provide for lengthier stays.

“I think what the mayor is doing is a great move in the right direction,” said Assemb. Aileen Gunther (D-Forestburgh), chair of the Assembly Mental Health Committee, “because what is happening is people are going to jail without getting the treatment they really need.”

Gunther said there are examples, under current law, of persons being picked up, released in a few days and then getting into further trouble, even committing crimes.

“What I think is, there has to be more hospital beds and a longer length of stays,” said Gunther, a nurse. “We’re putting kids in psychiatric hospitals, and often they put them in four three, four days and we really can’t see the efficacy of medication.”

Mayor has 11-point plan

The Adams administration has touched base with the State Senate and Assembly about possible legislation, part of what the mayor called an 11-point plan to address the “psychiatric care crisis.”

One issue Adams specifically said he’d request is for legislators to amend “Kendra’s Law” — the state’s involuntary commitment law — to ensure an assessment of potential “serious harm" includes whether a person can meet basic needs such as food and shelter.

Another would widen the scope of qualified individuals who could asses a potential involuntary hospitalization. Rather than relying exclusively on physicians, the mayor’s proposal would allow licensed clinical social workers and registered psychiatric nurses to do so.

Another would make the default confinement one year rather than “not to exceed one year,” as under current law, because, Adams argues, too often judges are imposing shorter confinement periods than health officials recommend.

State law already gives police and health workers authority to take people involuntarily to a hospital if it’s deemed the person poses the threat of “serious harm” to himself or others. Critics have called it a slippery standard and that Adams is “playing fast and loose” with New Yorkers’ legal rights.

“The federal and state constitutions impose strict limits on the government’s ability to detain people experiencing mental illness — limits that the mayor’s proposed expansion is likely to violate,” said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. "The decades-old practice of sweeping deep-seated problems out of public view may play well for the politicians, but the problems will persist — for vulnerable people in desperate need of government services and for New Yorkers.”

Asked about the need for legislation, Gunter said: “I think a lot of things need clarification.”

Senate Mental Health Committee Chair Samra Brouk (D-Rochester) didn’t immediately return a call to comment.

Some strongly oppose plan

Some strongly oppose Adams’ initiative, saying more supportive housing and mental health investments are needed rather than sweeps. Some have said the policy could disproportionately impact minorities.

“We do not support the mayor’s harmful, shortsighted policy as it will further criminalize houselessness and disappear our most vulnerable neighbors into jails and hospitals,” Bronx Defenders, the nonprofit that provides legal services to low-income residents, wrote on Twitter.

The group added: “Simply put: More policing and involuntary hospitalization does not further public health or safety.”

Another issue is beds.

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, then-Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed an order allowing hospitals to shift roughly 1,000 beds from psychiatric care to COVID-19 patients.

Earlier this year, Gov. Kathy Hochul and the State Legislature approved $27 million to raise related Medicaid rates to give hospitals an incentive to return those beds to psychiatric care. But that was part of a matching grant program that has yet to be acted upon by the federal government, officials have said.

As a result, only about 150 beds have been restored, according to the state Office of Mental Health.

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