Homeless & Mentally Ill in New York City

NEW YORK CITYVOICES: November/December 1999

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By Ken Steele, Publisher

I have been homeless and mentally ill in New York City. This is not the subject I had hoped to write about. I am forced to personally look back instead of forward as I had planned to do. There are the exciting possibilities the recent passage of the Social Security Administration's Work Incentives legislation will bring to us all in the New Year. I wanted to write about it.

But then a brick tragically smashed into a young woman's head, launching a manhunt for a mentally ill homeless person. Add to this the usual tabloid headlines and editorials which simply don't ever "get it" when it comes to our issues, and here I am writing about being homeless and mentally ill in New York City.

Let me begin by asking why the suspect in this assault was assumed to be a mentally ill homeless man? Many would say because Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said so. I would say it was because violent incidents involving mentally ill people, homeless or not, whenever they occur are instantly high profile media events, often making national news broadcasts.

Do you think if the suspect, Paris Drake, 32, who has no history of mental illness and/or homelessness would have been instantly identified, there would have been so much press? I don't. Violence occurs every day in our City and few incidents stir up firestorms like those where the tabloids use words like "deranged" and "psychos" to depict us, without concerning themselves about their use of such inflammatory language. Can you name another group where these types of derogatory terms can be openly used on front page headlines without legal and/or political repercussions?

The Mayor's sweep of the homeless off our City streets because of this incident and his new policy towards the use of City shelters and living homeless demonstrates just how desperate the need is on our part to step up our efforts to educate New Yorkers about who we really are and how we can be helped. We have failed mostly because we are afraid to stand up and identify ourselves as people with mental illnesses. We need to understand that by doing this, it is not about you or me personally. It is about us together helping to deliver important messages like the fact that the homeless mentally ill are without access to treatment and housing and they are falling through cracks in a mental health system larger than the system itself and until that changes, little else will.

We can all huff and puff and point fingers of blame. What has it changed for us? Only we can make these changes by coming out of our closets and speaking to our neighbors, co-workers, employers, and government leaders. We need to teach them about us. All they know is what they read in newspapers and what they watch on movie and television screens.

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