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Mayor's $22M Mental Health Program Struggles to Get Off Ground

By Gustavo Solis | February 1, 2016 11:32am
 Investigators wanted to question Anthony White in connection to the fatal stabbing in the Boulevard homeless shelter, they said.
Investigators wanted to question Anthony White in connection to the fatal stabbing in the Boulevard homeless shelter, they said.
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NYPD and DNAinfo/Trevor Kapp

NEW YORK CITY — Mayor Bill de Blasio's $22 million program to protect the public and get help for violent mentally ill residents has no clear markers for success and does not coordinate with prosecutors and the city's court system to identify people who pose the greatest risks, a DNAinfo New York investigation has found.

NYC Safe was unveiled in August 2015 as an early intervention program for the city's mentally ill.  Its stated aim is to "stop and respond to violence" by connecting their targeted population with treatment. Six months in, the city is monitoring 76 people, but a number of high-profile cases have eluded the program.

Anthony White, for example, a homeless man with a history of mental problems who stabbed a former teacher to death in an East Harlem homeless shelter last week, is not involved in the NYC Safe program. A city spokeswoman said he did not demonstrate high potential for violence prior to slashing the man’s throat.

But White threatened to kill someone days before murdering Deven Black, a former teacher and librarian, according to The New York Times.

Kari Bazemore, 41, is accused of attacking four women, including slashing two of them, and has more than 30 prior arrests. Citing privacy concerns, a city spokeswoman would not say if Bazemore, who was found mentally unfit to stand trial in 2014, is part of the program.

A de Blasio spokeswoman denied DNAinfo's request to speak directly to individuals involved with running NYC Safe.

The spokeswoman said success was partly measured by how well people are doing in treatment but she could not provide more concrete standards. When asked about its coordination with city agencies and prosecutors, the spokeswoman provided some statistics about the 76 people who are enrolled.

The spokeswoman declined to provide context for those statistics or any additional information.

City prosecutors, who have access to people’s criminal history and mental fitness to stand trial, are not active participants in the program, though they do provide information when asked.

“At least from our internal perspective it’s not a program we oversee or in any way we have a heavy role in,” said Charisma Troiano, a spokeswoman for the Kings County District Attorney’s Office. “We basically are kind of just, as an analogy, more of a reporter of information.”

In another case, prosecutors from the Manhattan District Attorney called the mayor's office to have a Harlem woman who was repeatedly arrested for threatening to kill neighborhood children and their mothers referred to the program.

She was never officially enrolled.

Neighbors in Harlem spent a year calling the police on Hillary Rose for her erratic and menacing behavior only to see her back on the block after a short stay in a hospital. They were told to get orders of protection against her and that they had to wait for her to be arrested on a more serious charge before they could act.

“The thing that bothers me the most about all of this is that it seems that she could do anything, then claim to be mentally ill and be released as if she has done nothing wrong,” neighbor Jack Llewellyn-Karski wrote in a letter to prosecutors. “These are criminal activities, regardless of her mental condition.”

Rose was eventually arrested on a felony charge and placed in a court-run mental health program.

Candidates for NYC Safe must have either an assault charge, order of protection, or two violent episodes within six months and they must have gone through an unsuccessful attempt “to manage a person’s care with existing resources" from the Department of Homeless Services, a city spokeswoman said on background.

Medical diagnosis is not specific criteria, the city spokeswoman said.

When the program was launched, homelessness and violence from the mentally ill, many of whom also happened to be homeless, was an issue drawing daily headlines.

"Some in the media have tried to portray this as about homeless first and foremost," de Blasio said then. "No. It is about people who have mental health challenges and are prone to violence."

But only the Department of Homeless Services currently refers people to the program. Officials say the NYPD will start contributing with the referrals as the program expands.

The Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and the city’s prosecutors contribute information to NYC Safe, but do not identify individuals.

The program created “co-response” teams of specially trained police officers and health specialists, but the teams have not yet hit the streets.

On Friday, days after White killed his roommate in an East Harlem shelter, de Blasio called for even more staffing in city shelters including medical specialists to help identify people with mental illness, echoing some of the goals of NYC Safe.

Homeless advocates say NYC Safe relies too much on DHS and the NYPD and not enough on advocates or mental health professionals.

William Burnett, a member of the board of directors at Picture the Homeless, said it’s a bad idea to link police officers with social workers because of their poor track record with such preventative initiatives as stop-and-frisk or blanketing.

“The NYPD has a tendency to use campaigns of harassment on vulnerable populations to affect the perception of a threat to public safety and officers assume the benefit of broad discretion to do so,” he said. “So who gets to decide whether an individual homeless person is violently mentally ill or even mentally ill at all for that matter.”

The NYPD does not currently track the number of arrests involving emotionally distressed persons, a spokesman said.

NYC Safe includes training for NYPD officers to help them deal with mentally ill individuals, but homeless New Yorkers say they are skeptical of police officers' ability to do it effectively, saying officers have lumped homeless people with mentally ill people in the past.

“They think we are mentally ill because you see people talking to themselves,” said Mae Birch, who has been homeless since 2013. “Maybe we’re upset and have no one to listen. When I was in the shelter system, the staff stole my clothes. I will never go back to another shelter.”