The Involuntary Hospitalization of the Homeless

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An opinion piece on NYC Mayor Eric Adams’ new policy on homeless individuals

By Sheldon Ekirch (she/her), Minority Graduate Fellow in Public Health

In late November of this year, the Mayor of New York City, Eric Adams, announced a new and controversial mental health policy in an “effort” to prevent future crimes and “promote” public safety. His policy would give first responders, outreach workers, and city-operated hospitals the ability to involuntarily provide medical treatment to homeless individuals who display severe symptoms of mental illness. The details, however, regarding the facts surrounding the classification of “severe” remain vague. At first glance, the standard appears to be when an individual can no longer care for themselves. The Office of the Mayor, as one would hope, plans to provide trainings and resources to the referenced parties.

My first thought, instinctually, was the following: what sort of training would possibly prepare much, if not all, of the NYPD and others with the proficiency to determine the severity of one’s mental illness? The answer is simple – the only training that would sufficiently prepare officers and the mentioned parties with the skills necessary to do such a task already exists; it’s called medical school and/or getting your degree in psychology or one of the relevant fields (i.e. counseling). However, to my knowledge, the NYPD has no such plans. If I wasn’t clear, then let me put it plainly: neither the NYPD nor most people without a graduate degree in the relevant field, are qualified to enforce Mayor’s Adams’ directive.

Even if the necessary parties were to be adequately trained (as mentioned above), the overarching problem still exists — to involuntarily treat a person is to deny them their individual autonomy and rights. The idea of depriving a person, on the basis of a superficial examination, of their personal autonomy is deeply troublesome. Mayor Adams rationalizes his policy by citing one’s “moral obligation” to those that have “severe mental illness.” However, in doing so, Mayor Adams not only imposes his morals, but his preconceived notions and biases, on the people of New York City. With regard to this policy, Mayor Adams’ morals are highly problematic and at odds with the welfare of his constituents.

At the very least, this directive is extremely paternalistic and ableist in nature. At the very worst, it is likely illegal under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Indeed, the legal challenges, including a class action, quickly followed Mayor Adams’ policy announcement. However, as of December 9th, a Federal Judge refused to issue a temporary restraining order (TRO) on the grounds of standing (i.e., injury in fact). The judge essentially, in so many words, said that it was premature to issue a TRO because no injured parties existed at this time. The legal question before the courts is likely to be a long and arduous one. However, one thing remains abundantly clear. Mayor Adams’ new policy is alarmingly oppressive and inherently troublesome.