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How NYC’s new subway safety plan could affect people of color

The plan, announced last month, pairs social workers and police officers to do outreach and boosts funding for housing and mental health services.
The Times Square subway station last month.John Minchillo / AP

In an attempt to curb rising crime in the subway system, New York Mayor Eric Adams announced a new plan that specifically targets homeless people — a move advocates say could have a disproportionate impact on communities of color.

The mayor’s announcement that people will no longer be able to sleep on subway cars or engage in other behaviors deemed unsafe or a public disturbance comes after several high-profile acts of violence. Within the past month, multiple people were attacked while traveling on the subway, including a 30-year-old woman who police said was struck in the head with a pipe by a homeless man. In January, police said Michelle Go was pushed to her death by a homeless man while waiting at the Times Square station.

“We have to be honest about the numbers of individuals who are dealing with mental health crises,” Adams said at a news conference last month. “They are dangerous to themselves and dangerous to New Yorkers.”

According to data released by the New York Police Department, New York City’s overall index of crime in January increased by 38.5 percent compared to January last year. On transit specifically, 198 crimes took place in January — an increase of 75.2 percent compared to January 2021.

In response to the city’s escalating crime rate, Adams deployed more police to patrol the train stations, resulting in more than 100,000 inspections since the beginning of the year.

But some fear the city’s new plan will unfairly criminalize homelessness and people of color. 

“Over the course of the pandemic, people have recognized that police should not be the first tool that cities used to respond to a variety of social ills, and it feels like this is sort of a step backward that could actually increase police interactions with homeless New Yorkers who are disproportionately Black and Latino,” Jacquelyn Simone, policy director for the New York City social services group Coalition for the Homeless, told NBC News.

Advocates also point out that not all homeless people are violent or mentally ill.

One aspect of the safety plan involves homeless outreach teams composed of social workers and police officers that will identify and respond to individuals who have mental illnesses. The teams will be at stations that are deemed the highest need, including Penn Station and Grand Central Terminal, according to New York Police Department Commissioner Keechant Sewell, and they will canvas high-priority areas on the trains. Passengers who witness a homeless person in distress can also dial 311, which was configured for drop-in centers where homeless people can access services such as counseling, health care and laundry.

Coalition for the Homeless released a statement condemning the city’s outreach-based policing strategies following Adams’ announcement. 

New York City has one of the largest homeless populations in the nation. According to data provided by Coalition for the Homeless, Black and Latino communities are at greater risk of homelessness: In 2017, 58 percent of the city’s shelter residents were Black, and 31 percent were Latino. 

“Because of persistent racism, Black and Latinx New Yorkers are disproportionately affected by homelessness,” Simone said. “I think that as people have a greater recognition of racial inequalities, we need to also ensure that we provide the permanent housing that people need to really thrive.” 

The mayor’s office did not respond to a request for comment about how the plan will impact the city’s subway system but did refer to a previously issued news release about the plan.

There are some benefits to the plan, advocates said. It includes investing millions of dollars into supportive housing beds, psychiatric beds and hospitals. To address the shortage of health care workers due to the pandemic, the state plans to use $10 million to recruit psychiatrists, who will be eligible for up to $150,000 in student loan forgiveness.

Robert Cornegy, executive vice president of external affairs for the Doe Fund, a nonprofit group that provides resources for homeless and formerly incarcerated people in New York City, said this boost in funding is what the city has needed for decades.

“I think it accomplishes both the goals that we want as a city,” Cornegy, a former New York city council member, said. “On a short term, to make sure that the chronically mentally ill get the services that they need — whether it’s through medication, whether it’s through other clinicians — and then the other 75 percent of folks who need access to good jobs, affordable housing get assessed as well.” 

One of the Doe Fund's first programs was identifying homeless men in Grand Central station and giving them access to stable employment and sustainable housing. 

“We pushed back as an organization against this narrative that says that people who are in the subways or people who are either too crazy or too lazy to work,” said Cornegy, who pointed out that homelessness is also rooted in historical redlining and discriminatory housing practices.

Richard Lettieri, a forensic neuropsychologist and psychoanalyst who has worked with people with mental illnesses who have committed violent crimes, said there is a misleading assumption that individuals, like homeless people who are mentally ill, can overcome their disorder with willpower.

In one of his articles, he examined the relationship between mental illness, homelessness and violent crimes, finding that many incarcerated people have experienced chronic homelessness and inadequate mental health services. He also said that without ongoing treatment, continuously experiencing trauma from homelessness can cause an individual’s symptoms to worsen over time. 

“You get homeless because you’ve been traumatized,” he said, “and you get retraumatized by the consequences of being homeless. So it’s cyclical and deepening.”

Experts also say that most people with mental health problems are not violent.

While the mayor’s plan targets homeless people, Cornegy said it may also help remove the stigma around accessing mental health services in the Black community. 

“Since the pandemic … people are now identifying anxiety and stress — and all of those things as being contributory to mental health issues,” he said. “Highlighting the need for mental health, people will now understand and access those services more readily, especially in the Black community.”

While the exact cause of the increase in crime, including the incidents on subways, is difficult to pinpoint, Cornegy said the pandemic created hopelessness and trauma that contributed to the crime wave.

“When people don’t have access to good-quality jobs, when they don’t have access to good-quality health care, when they don’t have access to good, solid long-term and sustainable housing, and when people are uneducated,” he said, “there’s a bigger propensity for violence and crime in those communities.”

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