Did NYC Just Allow Medical Kidnap of the Homeless?
The mayor of New York City (NYC) has ordered the forced removal of mentally ill homeless people from the streets and hospitalizing them for treatment.
The move has raised criticism for both ethical and legal reasons and is seen by experts in the social sciences as doomed to fail.
On Tuesday (May 29), Mayor Eric Adams announced a “mental health crisis” in the homeless population of NYC and stated that he is directing law enforcement to be more aggressive in removing the mentally ill homeless from the streets and subways – “even if it means involuntarily hospitalizing some people who refuse care,” reported CBN News on Wednesday.
As this directive gives the authorities the right to “immediately hospitalize anyone they deem a danger to themselves or unable to care for themselves,” its implications raise questions about the basic civil rights of homeless people, including their health decisions. How is such removal and institutionalization on the grounds of mental illness not akin to medical kidnap?
C.J. Ciaramella wrote on reason (Wednesday, November 30) that this policy of Mayor Adams is very likely to face legal challenges from civil liberties groups that see such use of authority as an act of transgression on one’s basic constitutional rights.
Ciaramella’s column cites the landmark ruling of the US Supreme Court in the 1975 case O’Connor v. Donaldson that “mental illness alone is not a justification for indefinite custodial confinement.” It’s relevant to mention that New York has certain laws regarding mental health whereby judges can authorize the involuntary administration of medication or supervised psychiatric treatment for people with serious mental illness.
Yet, New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) Executive Director Donna Lieberman believes that Mayor Adams’ move will likely violate federal and state laws regarding the involuntary treatment of mentally ill individuals.
The big question remains whether such an approach works in helping the homeless and the people and businesses down the streets?
Experts don’t put much faith in such measures of forced removal and hospitalization.
“Involuntary psychiatric hospitalization is not the answer,” says Jay S. Levy, author of Cross-Cultural Dialogues on Homelessness and Pretreatment Guide for Homeless Outreach & Housing First, who has over 30 years of working experience with homeless people. He adds:
“I worked in NYC during the 1980s and this was tried by Mayor Koch. It did not pass legal muster back then and it won’t now.”
Levy’s experience shows that housing the homeless is the actual and only effective treatment of their illness, both social and psychological. Instead of forced removal from the streets, Levy backs the approach of advocacy and trust-building to let the homeless move into a house and start their journey to recovery.
Sociologists Neil Gong and Alex V. Barnard pointed to the grave risks associated with forced hospitalization and treatment of mentally ill people while commenting on California’s approach to handling the homelessness crisis in the state, similar to Mayor Adams’ directive.
In an opinion piece published in Washington Post in May this year, the academicians contended that such a “court-ordered treatment is not only ineffective but can also drive people decisively away from essential services.”
Mayor Adams, on the other hand, has rejected all criticism of his approach and stated that he is willing to step into “unchartered waters” where others have been unwilling to go. He calls his approach “compassionate care” and has ordered training law enforcement and first responders to make it possible.