Richard Kalvar / Magnum Photos

In Good Conscience: Responding to Troubled Men on the Street

Josh Greenman

November 01, 2023

What should bystanders actually do to help destitute and disturbed New Yorkers?

What should bystanders actually do to help destitute and disturbed New Yorkers?

Three times in recent weeks, I’ve had brushes with unstable, seemingly mentally ill men on the streets of New York, and in response tried to alert social workers and mental health professionals, not cops, in hopes assistance might arrive. Three times, those efforts went nowhere. The disconnects I encountered — at a time when the ranks of unhoused people seem to be proliferating, and a small number of them are putting other New Yorkers at risk — strongly suggest that the current state of affairs is untenable. 

Of late, as the number of homeless men on the streets has seemed to grow, City Hall has rolled out successive attempts to deliver tough love — by finding more proactive ways to move people from subway cars and street encampments into shelters, where they are likelier to access mental health and addiction services. Whether or not one agrees with the single most controversial proposal at issue here — the involuntary psychiatric commitment of people with serious mental illness — it’s hard to argue with the government employing new tools to aid people in crisis. 

Since homelessness of single, usually male, adults is often tightly tangled around deep maladies, unless the city goes out of its way to link more troubled people to mental health and addiction treatment, housing help and other assistance, efforts to help this population will remain largely reactive, falling increasingly on a small contingent of already overstretched professionals and organizations, including cops. Prevention and cure are the wrong metaphors here, but an ounce of effective earlier intervention is worth a pound or two of less effective, more problematic later intervention.

In an August admonition to the public, Eric Adams put it this way: “We have to start becoming trauma identifiers, identifying when someone is in pain…and giv[ing] them the help they want.” That “we” can’t just mean teams of social workers; it should include regular New Yorkers who encounter people living in desperation who clearly need help they’re not getting on the street.

Prevention and cure are the wrong metaphors here, but call it an ounce of effective earlier intervention being worth a pound or two of less effective, more problematic later intervention.

I’m not so naive as to believe that putting someone who mutters to himself and tends to sleep on the sidewalk in touch with social workers, psychologists, addiction recovery resources and homeless services professionals is magically going to turn his life around. Many if not most “emotionally disturbed people,” as the cops used to call them, have had multiple contacts with nonprofits and government workers over the course of their troubles. They haven’t fallen through cracks, per se; rather, they often resist being helped for the same reasons that they plunged into desperate circumstances in the first place. 

The point, reinforced by the city’s attempts to direct those sleeping on subway trains to shelter or coax more people into psychiatric treatment, is that it might take 100 or 1,000 attempts before one actually results in such a person remaining in a healthier environment: safe-haven shelters like those run by BRC, clubhouse-style community centers like those run by Fountain House, work programs like those run by the Doe Fund, and ultimately supportive housing. (And yes, I understand many have an understandable resistance to going into a shelter given previous experiences.) All of which is to say, the city should have a constructive process whereby New Yorkers’ good-conscience reports about people who are desperate for help yield helpful responses from our government. We don’t have that yet, at all.

My stories may feel sadly familiar to other New Yorkers. Last month, I was on a walk around the neighborhood with my 9-year-old daughter. A few feet away from us on a street corner, in public view, a man sat masturbating under his sweatpants. Thankfully, my daughter was looking elsewhere. Two days later, as I walked her to school, we saw the man again, this time crumpled up in a sidewalk tree bed.

I thought it a good idea to inform the city. Pragmatism and self-interest, if not some sense of moral duty, should motivate us to lend a hand to troubled people rather than dismissing them as human wreckage to be stepped over or swept away.

Many if not most “emotionally disturbed people,” as the cops used to call them, haven’t fallen through cracks, per se; rather, they often resist being helped for the same reasons that they plunged into desperate circumstances in the first place.

I opened my NYC311 app and followed the prompts for “Homeless Assistance.” I indicated where I’d seen the person and described the issue. Strangely, there was no place to include a photo. Instead, I gave what was surely an unhelpfully vague description.

The worst part is what happened next. I entered my request at 8:15 a.m., and just 15 minutes later got a notice that the complaint had been closed, “referred…to the New York City Police Department.” While police could conceivably have been part of a balanced, coordinated response here — and while they’re certainly the right responders when someone is threatening themselves or others — for good reason, they’re no longer supposed to be the reflexive answer to people in mental health crisis. It’s unfair to expect cops to be social workers, and putting that burden on their shoulders can increase the chances that an encounter will result in an unnecessary entanglement with the criminal justice system.

The second encounter was a few days later, as I was walking with my family through downtown Brooklyn. Not far away, a man ambled down the sidewalk shouting furiously at the top of his lungs at everyone in his path — again, effectively crying out for psychiatric help. Since the 311 app hadn’t been of much use the last time around, this time I called 988, which was stuck in my head as a psychological crisis hotline. Its website says “NYC 988 is the single point of access for Mobile Crisis Team Services in New York City, operating 24/7/365.”

After a few minutes bouncing around a phone tree, minutes during which the man had disappeared down the street, I spoke to a kind enough operator — who told me that this was the wrong number to call to trigger a response. Next time, he said, I should call 311 and ask for HOME-STAT

Soon enough, I got a chance to try. One afternoon about a week later, a block from my home and my daughter’s school, I encountered a man slumped over a garbage can, immobile. Was this the same man we had seen on the corner and in the tree bed? I couldn’t be sure. Perhaps he was only sleeping, but more likely, he needed medical or mental health help. 

Good-conscience reports about people who are desperate for help should yield helpful responses from our government.

I called 311. After a few minutes bouncing around, I managed to speak with a human who told me she’d relay my complaint to the Department of Homeless Services, which would send an outreach team within an hour to locate the man based on my description. (I had taken a photo but again, there was nowhere to send it.) That was at 2:40.

At 7:35 came an update: “A mobile outreach team has arrived at the location”

At 7:36 came another: “The mobile outreach response team went to the location provided but could not find the individual that you reported.”

In sending such a team, New York City is better than many cities and worse than others. The people who do this work here are probably well-trained. They are certainly well-intended. But this is not a machine that operates with anything close to the efficiency and accountability needed to help people at the speed of city life. A nearly five-hour response time all but guarantees the closure of an empty case.

Since the beginning of New York, New Yorkers have encountered seriously mentally ill individuals on our streets. Usually but not always, they present no physical harm to the rest of us. They need help and often aren’t willing or able to seek it out themselves — which means if it is ever to arrive, someone has to point it in their direction. 

Public officials have told their constituents that there’s a helpful role for them to play as good samaritans and eyes on the street. We must either fix these broken systems or disabuse New Yorkers of that notion.