On Wednesday, February 9, a pile of bags on a platform bench at the 21st Street-Van Alst subway station was cordoned off by police tape as there was a body of a homeless woman beneath the baggage and blankets. Audrey Lumer, 63, was a graduate of an art school and once lived on Utopia Parkway at her father’s house until a rent dispute in 2018 resulted in her eviction. Likely on account of her mental state, she refused assistance and found shelter in the subway system.
Based on her former neighborhood and name, I wondered if she was Jewish. She wasn’t, but whenever we see a panhandler on the street who looks like us, or has a name with a familiar ring, we ask ourselves how this individual ended up on the street and whether there are policies that can prevent another lonely death on a subway station platform.
“No more smoking, no more doing drugs, no more sleeping, no more barbecues on the subway system. No more just doing whatever you want,” Adams said at a press conference last week at a downtown Manhattan subway station. “No. Those days are over.”
He then noted Lumer’s example, without mentioning any names. “There’s one case where a woman has been living under a stairway in the system for months. This is not acceptable. That is not dignity. That is disgusting. And that’s not who we are as a city.”
Adams was joined by Gov. Kathy Hochul, who announced a $27.5 million boost in funding for inpatient psychiatric hospital beds, $9 million for recruiting psychiatrists and psychiatric nurse practitioners, and $12.5 million annually for 500 additional supportive housing beds for homeless individuals.
“We know it’s a big problem. But shame on us if at this moment in time, if we don’t turn over every single stone, find every possible way to deal with this,” she said.
The governor and mayor were joined by Councilwoman Linda Lee, who expressed her support for the policy. “Improving New York City’s mental health care system must start with helping the most vulnerable among us receive treatment,” she said.
Unlike the previous mayor, Adams commutes to City Hall by subway and is a former transit cop elected on a platform of combating quality-of-life crime. The challenge to his blunt, matter-of-fact views may come from homeless advocacy organizations and the City Council, where progressives oppose police officers enforcing policies concerning the homeless, or unhoused – the new term they use for such individuals.
“Making sure New Yorkers feel and are safe riding the subway is critical to our recovery,” Comptroller Brad Lander wrote, fearing that homeless individuals are more likely to be sent to jail rather than get the services they need. “There is little evidence to suggest that increasing the presence of police officers in our subways will meaningfully break the cycle of homelessness, hospitalization, and incarceration. These are anxious times – but we can’t allow our fears to lead us to violate civil rights and fill up our jails with people who need services not cells.”
Other progressives argued that preventing homelessness lies in extending the moratorium on evictions and passing laws that would make it tougher for landlords to evict tenants, and limit rent increase amounts. “We have a governor who either doesn’t understand the magnitude of the housing crisis in the state or does not have the capability or courage to address it,” Public Advocate Jumaane Williams said at a rally outside the Governor’s Manhattan office last month. “You cannot allow a moratorium to lapse in the middle of winter, during a COVID surge, and not even pass ‘good cause.’”
Somewhere between the rights of property owners to choose their tenants (in a non-discriminatory manner) and set rent amounts, of people taking trains without destinations and refusing assistance, of commuters whose fares and taxes pay for the subway system, of the public interest in preventing homelessness and crime by ensuring that people can afford to live in their homes, the mayor must strike a balance. To do this, he must speak with honesty, but he cannot afford to alienate his colleagues in government.
As progressives come to terms that their “decarceral” and “defunding” policies have not diminished crime in the city, Adams has an opportunity to gain the support of the City Council on his proposals.
But his appointment of evangelical pastor Erick Salgado as the Assistant Commissioner of Outreach at the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs has antagonized city and state lawmakers. Likewise with his support for former Bronx Councilman and pastor Fernando Cabrera to lead faith-based initiatives.
As they both spoke out publicly against same-gender marriage in harsh terms, their appointment was criticized in a letter by the Council’s LGBTQ Caucus, which includes Forest Hills Councilwoman Lynn Schulman and Astoria’s Tiffany Cabán. “We call on the Mayor to make selections with positions and histories we can all support,” caucus member Chi Osse of Brooklyn tweeted. “We welcome an opportunity to discuss our concerns and alternative appointments for these roles in the new administration.”
To speak unfavorably of mentally unstable individuals who refuse services, or in opposition to LGBT relationships, is constitutionally protected and representative of many city residents who share such views, but not likely to build bridges on other policies that are vital to the city’s recovery from the pandemic and its economic downturn.
Orthodox Jews in New York City recognize that many hate crimes targeting the community have been committed by homeless and mentally unstable individuals; there is widespread financial and food insecurity among many Orthodox Jews, and at the same time most Orthodox Jews hold conservative social views.
At the same time, leading Jewish organizations and many voters are pragmatic, reaching out to progressive and LGBT elected officials on issues where there is agreement. Our views are known, but we know when to hold them back, without compromising our values. For the future of the city, Adams and the City Council must act likewise in addressing crime, homelessness, and poverty.
By Sergey Kadinsky