A memorial for a homeless man in Manhattan slain by...

A memorial for a homeless man in Manhattan slain by a man allegedly suffering from mental illness. Credit: AP/Eduardo Munoz Avarez

When federal agents arrested Gerald Brevard III on Tuesday in connection with a heinous string of shootings of homeless people in New York and in Washington, D.C. where he lives, one unsurprising detail quickly emerged: a history of mental illness.

This is sadly common. The little-treated, unaddressed problems of severe mental illness continue to be a tragic scourge when sufferers turn to violence. In recent weeks in New York, we have seen depraved, spontaneous attacks on random people, including women being shoved to the ground or onto the subway tracks in Times Square, kicked down subway stairs, and in Yonkers, punched dozens of times and stomped.

The disparate incidents have widely different fact patterns, from the shocking push of an unsuspecting 87-year-old singing instructor who ultimately died of her injuries Tuesday, to multiple cases where the violence targeted Asian New Yorkers. Perfectly common threads are hard to find, but too often, the perpetrator exhibited deteriorated mental health.

That root problem must be addressed by elected officials who say they want to tackle crime in New York.

It is easy — and altogether common — to blame recent changes to the criminal justice system for this or that incident. Often, these recent changes have little or nothing to do with the crime in question. Adherence to political talking points allows government leaders to ignore the complicated, interconnected issues of mental health and associated homelessness that far too often are actually the underlying problems. Brevard has an arrest history and his father refused to discuss the recent shootings; however, he told the New York Times, "I can only speak to the issue of the failure of the judicial system identifying that my son suffers from mental illness but not treating it."

In the dense urban center of New York City, there are too few psychiatric beds to stabilize those in need. Homeless shelters serve thousands of people but are often too dangerous, forcing the most vulnerable New Yorkers to sleep in subpar, congregate settings. That also pushes many of the most disturbed individuals onto the subway or street.

For years this has been the unacceptable status quo, a result of the "deinstitutionalization" movement that in the 1950s began emptying big psychiatric hospitals in favor of more community-based care. That was meant to improve care for mental health sufferers, but we haven’t sufficiently supported treatment, including monitoring medications, for those who need it outside of hospital settings.

We know some of the hard solutions, some of which can be addressed in the state budget currently being negotiated: Improve treatment options. Fund supportive housing that gives a roof but also crucial help to people unwilling or unable to go to a shelter. That can help to forestall someone’s violent explosion, and also to give people a safer place to sleep.

Ignoring this side of the equation means not being serious about addressing public safety.

MEMBERS OF THE EDITORIAL BOARD are experienced journalists who offer reasoned opinions, based on facts, to encourage informed debate about the issues facing our community.


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