“Andrew Yang draws fire over debate comments on mental illness,” the New York Times reported yesterday. It’s both difficult and easy to see why. The difficulty in understanding the criticism comes from watching Yang tell the truth about the mentally-ill homeless. The ease of understanding it comes from … exactly the same thing:
Watch: Andrew Yang’s response to a question about how he would handle mental health during Wednesday's NYC mayoral debate drew fire on social media from people who said it lacked empathy or understanding. https://t.co/frKMJ3naJf pic.twitter.com/g9VKD1CoX5
— The New York Times (@nytimes) June 17, 2021
Andrew Yang said it was crucial to get people with untreated mental illness off the streets, citing a series of attacks against Asian New Yorkers, many of which were committed by mentally ill people. He said the city should be able to identify people who need help — like people who are violent or unconscious — and get them medication, even in some cases where they don’t ask for help.
“Yes, mentally ill people have rights, but you know who else have rights? We do: the people and families of the city,” Mr. Yang said. “We have the right to walk the street and not fear for our safety because a mentally ill person is going to lash out at us.”
Yang did frame this initially as part of the effort to fight anti-Asian hate crimes, but he didn’t just reference attacks on Asian New Yorkers — he spoke about the subways, East Harlem, and the Upper West Side. Yang’s point was the changing nature of the city due to the mentally ill being without support and a controlled environment. That point was clear from his full remarks:
“Mentally ill homeless men are changing the character of our neighborhoods,” he said, adding that families were leaving New York City because of their presence on the streets.
“We’re talking about the hundreds of mentally ill people we see around us every day on the streets and the subways,” he said. “We need to get them off of our streets and our subways into a better environment.”
However, the issue did get raised in the context of anti-Asian hate crimes, and for a reason. The NYT framed it specifically as an issue with the mentally-ill homeless more than two months ago. They focused on one perpetrator of such an attack, who has been arrested 33 times but is mentally ill and unable to access treatment:
Mr. Lau, 63, stepped in front of the man to ask what he was doing. The man, Donovan Lawson, spat at Mr. Lau and punched him in the face, calling him an anti-Chinese slur, prosecutors said. Mr. Lawson, who is Black, was arrested and charged with a hate crime.
It was the 33rd arrest for Mr. Lawson, 26, who is homeless and mentally ill, the authorities said. Four times, officers had been called to assist him because he appeared to be in the grip of a mental breakdown, and he was being monitored for treatment in a mental health program run by the Police Department.
He is not unique. Many of the people charged recently with anti-Asian attacks in New York City have also had a history of mental health episodes, multiple arrests and homelessness, complicating the city’s search for an effective response.
The pattern has revealed gaps in the criminal justice system’s ability to respond effectively when racial bias overlaps with mental illness, even as the city has stepped up enforcement efforts against these crimes.
This problem has a larger scope than anti-Asian hate crimes, and a much longer history than Donald Trump, too. Reforms in the 1970s and 1980s put an end to most involuntary commitments to mental hospitals, after serious abuses of the process and of the inmates got exposed. Most of the people who came out did well enough on their own. However, a certain percentage ended up being homeless and creating difficulties with police and others in these neighborhoods, and that has continued to be the case ever since.
Not everyone who’s homeless is mentally ill, of course, and not everyone with emotional or adjustment problems require hospitalization. Clearly, however, some do, which is the point that Yang made in the debate. We need a discussion about how to recalculate involuntary commitment to make sure those who cannot function without supervision get the structure they need while avoiding the abuses of the prior system. No one really wants to have that discussion, which is why Yang is “drawing fire” for pointing out in a debate precisely what the NYT pointed out in early April:
But confronting the role of mental illness in such crimes is also critical, criminologists say, and the city lacks a robust safety net for individuals who frequently come into contact with law enforcement and mental health professionals.
“The system is so broken that somebody can be handcuffed and taken to the hospital and be back on the street in a matter of a few hours,” said Kevin Nadal, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
The NYT’s coverage of Yang’s comments pretty much guarantees that this conversation won’t take place now, either. It’s a pity, not just for law-abiding citizens in the Big Apple, but also for the mentally ill that need more than just freedom.