OP-ED: THIS WEEKEND’S VIOLENCE IS A WAKE-UP CALL FOR THE ENTIRE CITY.
Shaeleigh Severino is a candidate for New York City Council District 32 in Queens. She believes the violence last weekend must be a call to action on homelessness and mental health.
This weekend, a young man rode the entire length of the A-train from Far Rockaway in Queens all the way to 207th Street in Inwood. Along the way, he stabbed four people, murdering two and severely injuring the others. All of the people involved in this weekend’s violence — the attacker and his victims — were members of our city’s homeless community.
The investigation into this tragedy is just beginning and we still have a lot to learn about the how and the why and the what-comes-next. But there are answers we already have to questions we’ve been asking as a city for decades and a few things I already know to be true.
I know that if any of these people had access to safe, secure housing, this would not have happened. I know that if the attacker — Rigoberto Lopez, a 21-year-old man with a long, well-documented history of mental illness and hospitalization — had access to quality, reliable mental healthcare, this would not have happened. And most of all, I know that it is time to address the painful intersection of mental health, homelessness and violence on our streets.
According to a recent report by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, New York City is home to the largest population of homeless individuals in the country. Nearly 80,000 New Yorkers are homeless or housing insecure and approximately 4,000 of these men, women and children are sleeping on the streets on any given night.
Mental health issues, substance abuse and discrimination plague our homeless population and the pandemic has only exacerbated these challenges. The MTA’s decision to shut down late-night subway service has left thousands with nowhere to go. Dozens, sometimes hundreds, of people are turned away at underfunded homeless shelters every night due to overcrowding.
But we know this already. We’ve known it for years. So why is our response always the same?
The New York tabloids responded to the violence this weekend the way they always do; sensationalizing the murders and whipping their readers into a terrified frenzy. NYPD commissioner Dermot F. Shea responded by requesting 1,000 more police officers into the subways — joining a force of 2,500 cops already assigned to the transit bureau — which will lead to the arrests of more homeless people while accomplishing nothing else.
It’s time to recognize this problem for what it is and put plans in place to address homelessness, affordable housing, mental health and violence as an interconnected crisis plaguing our city. Housing is a human right, as is access to quality healthcare, especially mental healthcare.
We must make housing more accessible for all New Yorkers. We need to expand 80/20 developments across all five boroughs and establish needs-based considerations. We must amend AMI guidelines so no one is forced to pay more than 30 percent of their income on rent and reform MIH rules so developers have to meet the commitments they make to the city.
We need to create greater housing protections to help our most vulnerable communities. Approximately 18,850 young New Yorkers are currently homeless — a number that should shock and shame us all. We need to create youth housing vouchers and increase funding for the Administration for Children’s Services to transition foster children into housing and add more mental health resources and support.
We must end leasing discrimination against the formerly incarcerated. Too many parolees are being denied housing, sustaining a cycle of homelessness and violence on our streets.
We must demand more affordable housing across New York and protect the 400,000 New Yorkers already living in NYCHA units through greater transparency and accountability. According to Data for Progress, NYCHA currently faces a backlog of $31.8 billion in desperately needed repairs and it is well past time to do something about it.
To more safely and respectfully address the needs of our homeless population, we need to take the NYPD out of the equation and increase funding for Crisis Management Systems (CMS). This will empower housing officials, social workers and mental health experts to be our city’s first responders to incidents involving the homeless. We shouldn’t be calling the cops every time a homeless person falls asleep on a bench. Responding to these people with respect, care and training will de-escalate violence and help address the real roots of our homelessness crisis.
What happened this weekend was horrific and I hope Mr. Lopez gets the punishment he deserves. But the unavoidable truth is that WE share the blame for what happened. Every time we avoid eye contact with the homeless man on the corner, we are to blame. Every time we call the cops on a woman sleeping on a bench in the park, we are to blame. Every time we vote or rally against a new homeless shelter or affordable housing development, we are to blame.
Our city is home to the world’s greatest concentration of wealth and the greatest concentration of homelessness, and that bitter fact indicts us all. We cannot claim to be the greatest city in the world when we are failing so many of our neighbors.
Claudine Roberts, 44, was one of the people killed this weekend. The other was a 57-year-old man who has yet to be identified. We need to find out his name and remember them both.
Let’s start doing better as a city right now.