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Opinion: Beyond broken windows…broken bodies

BY JONATHAN RUSSO | With the recent subway murder of Michelle Go, the city is on edge, once again, from the violence caused by the mentally ill and homeless.

In an effort to understand what is happening, the “broken windows” theory is making a comeback. As first espoused by sociologists James Wilson and George Kelling in a 1982 7,000-word Atlantic article, the theory proposed that visible small-scale social disorders — like graffiti, broken windows, turnstile jumping, public urination and other signs of lawlessness — fostered an environment for and indeed encouraged more serious violent crime.

In 1993, New York City mayor-elect Rudy Giuliani and his police commissioner William Bratton set out to fix this mess. Recently, Atlantic writer Alex Pareene documented his frustration with the quality of life plaguing his Brooklyn neighborhood and how depressing the city’s lack of response was.

As someone who had lived in Manhattan for a decade by 1982, the original theory made sense to me. The 1975 Daily News headline “Ford to City, Drop Dead” signified that America was going to leave its urban constituency to its own very limited devices. In 1982, the city felt ungovernable. These were the days of “Turn ’Em Loose Bruce,” when tabloid headlines screamed that judges were releasing career criminals to continue their crime sprees.

Around that time my apartment was broken into — apparently by a spider-man who shimmied up a drainpipe and entered a bathroom window. One night in the late ’70s I pulled an attempted rapist off a woman in the doorway of the building next door. My Tribeca street was basically a urinal for truckers.

As late as 1983, neighborhoods in the far West Village thought it necessary to hire security guards to stop disgruntled sex workers from drifting out of what was then truly the Meatpacking District and mugging us. One year later, Bernard Goetz, the milquetoast subway rider, would shoot four teenagers who were menacing him, or so he claimed. Many understood this action as vigilantism…always the last resort of those unprotected by official forces. Others, though, said Goetz went way too far, or wondered if his action had been premeditated.

However, from a humanitarian point of view, today it is far worse. Instead of broken windows, I am surrounded by broken lives. They are everywhere. They live in tents outside my building, in one of the “most desirable neighborhoods” in Manhattan — the Central Village off Fifth Ave. The other day, entering the subway early in the morning at the W. Fourth Street station, at least four homeless men were huddling under tarps and a few bent over and just wandering around.

It’s nearly impossible to find a subway car on the E train from its start in Queens that does not have one or more homeless sleeping on the seats. Most of the time, the trains and platforms are frequented by the clearly disturbed, who verbally express their distress. Their menace lies in their unpredictability.

The level of distress seems more profound, too. Some people wear rags and are as unwashed as you would imagine the lumpenproletariat were in Moscow circa 1914. These are not the formally passive “bums” I remember when the Bowery was the Bowery, but a far more clinically disturbed population. They are not just “down on their luck.”

This is the dark side of the city that newly elected Mayor Eric Adams inherits. Of course, the Meatpacking District is now filled with restaurants sporting $50 entrees and the Bowery has hotel rooms in the many hundreds with adjacent multimillion-dollar condos. So Adams is not inheriting a bankrupt city, a city without resources; he is inheriting a city unable or unwilling to help its desperate and growing underclass. Sooner or later, this failure is going to undermine all the glamour and glitter the mayor seems to enjoy in his role as “nightlife mayor.”

I have nothing against night owls; I am often one myself. However, in the bright light of day, it is time to look around and treat the underclass crisis with all the energy that the mayor seems to possess.

How did we get to this point? The answer is in a brilliant account of how we harmed so many by deinstitutionalizing them. Kurt Andersen’s 2017 “Fantasyland” gives a vivid account of centuries of delusional thinking by Americans. When Andersen gets to the ’70s, he exposes the intellectual justification for closing “mental hospitals.” I know his history is accurate because in 1970 I believed in this, too. Thomas Szatz (“The Myth of Mental Illness”), R.D. Laing (“The Divided Self,” “Knots”), Ken Kesey (“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”) and Frederick Wiseman (“Titicut Follies”) had an enormous influence on me.

I was a psychology major at the time. These authors and documentarians convinced me society was incarcerating harmless “different drummers,” non-mainstream creatives, because they were not conforming to the dominant society’s view of “sane.” So, society closed the institutions and established halfway houses and “community-based” support residences. All of which were and are a total failure.

Those who were released ended up as we see them today: bedraggled, hungry, confused, terrified and living on the streets. Or worse, in the penal system’s jails. If I could, I would apologize to each and every one of them for believing the New Age nonsense that all would be fine if they were set free.

Those with severe mental health disorders need to be removed from the subways, the streets and the prisons. Yes, some of this is self-interest since I don’t want to see more people pushed onto the subway tracks or stabbed or assaulted by those in crisis. More profoundly, it is inhumane and thus seriously depressing to live in a city and state as rich as this one and live side by side with those so troubled, so lacking in the very basics of life. I don’t want to have to ignore people next to me with treatable medical conditions, like open sores and swollen feet, or those in the throes of schizophrenic episodes.

I am heartened that the governor and mayor have recently decided to address the crisis by coordinating social workers and the police to reach out to the homeless. However, unfortunately for some, the best place is going to be in an institutional setting. It’s time to acknowledge that reality.

Russo’s writing has appeared in the Huffington Post, Talking Points Memo, Worth Magazine, Real Clear Markets, The Observer and the Daily News. He hosts a podcast, “Out of the Box with Jonathan Russo.”

5 Comments

  1. LES3025 LES3025 January 20, 2022

    There are certainly some people who need to be institutionalized, but I think this piece overlooks the key aspect of taking on these problems: housing. Most people who are homeless do not have severe mental health disorders, they simply cannot afford a place to live. Even for those who do have a mental health disorder, that is rarely a static condition and it is heavily influenced by the person’s material conditions. Living on the street is not going to be beneficial for anyone’s mental health.

    Supportive housing has been shown to be very effective in addressing homelessness. The problem is it isn’t funded enough and so there isn’t enough of it. Rather than pumping money back into institutions, I think it would be better spent investing in supportive housing.

    The government can also lift zoning restrictions that limit housing supply. SROs can only exist where specifically zoned, and new SRO construction has been banned for nearly 70 years. On top of that, the city incentivized landlords to tear down the ones that existed and replace them with upscale hotels, eliminating most of the stock that existed. Bring back SROs and some people will have a place to stay.

    It’s not hard to imagine other changes benefitting homeless people as well even if indirectly. The proposed ADU law would allow increased production of small units. Among the 50,000 homeless people in New York, surely some have families who would take them in if they had enough space.

    A few people need to be institutionalized. But most just need a home. We should focus on funding and building more homes for them.

  2. Jonathan Russo Jonathan Russo January 21, 2022

    LES,
    Thank you for your measured and intelligent comment. I totally agree that we need more of the housing help you propose. I am not trained in statistics, but the following is posted on the Collation For The Homeless website. They think the mentally ill are a large part of the unsheltered. Of course anyone on the streets long term will have “severe health problems.”
    “Studies show that the large majority of unsheltered homeless New Yorkers are people living with mental illness or other severe health problems.”
    For sure I hope you would agree that those that are in mental destress are suffering even more without shelter and need supportive care.

  3. ZW lower manhattan ZW lower manhattan January 22, 2022

    A contributing temporarily “humane” factor in the number of homeless on subway platforms and in the cars is that especially in subfreezing weather, the police when faced with a homeless person who refuses to be taken to a shelter, lacking any good alternative, will escort that person to a nearby subway station to keep them from freezing to death. This of course just underlines the crushing need to get rid of the shelter system entirely and develop permanent supportive affordable housing with on-site services and facility to deal with addiction and mental health issues, as well as similar affordable housing for low-income and homeless families, also with social and economic welfare services, health and employment referral help on site.
    The Mayor and his deputies would do well to set up a task force involving people, even his onetime adversaries like Kathryn Garcia, and yes, Curtis Sliwa, who have experience and have given a lot of thought to this issue, instead of thinking about various ill-advised upzoning plans, including the Soho/Noho/Chinatown plan recently pushed through the City Council, which is riddled with so many loopholes for luxury condo/commercial developers that not only will one unit of affordable housing never be built, and certainly not with any on-site supportive services, but hundreds of seniors, low- and middle-income working families now living in existing affordable rent-regulated units will be displaced, possibly adding unnecessarily to the ranks of the homeless.

  4. Jonathan Russo Jonathan Russo January 23, 2022

    ZW,
    There is nothing I can say. I agree 100% with your thesis.
    Permit me to tell you a true story.
    Several years ago the weather forecast was for -20, an Arctic bast was coming. I called 311 to help an unsheltered woman who is clearly disturbed and lives on the street next to my building. They said the mayor had declared an emergency and help would be on the way. I waited, and in fact an ambulance came within 5 minutes. The woman refused to go with them to a shelter. They let her wander off. They said there was nothing they could do.
    I thought she would freeze to death that night.
    In order to do as you so wisely request, there has to be a protocol to help that requires them to be evaluated and given the needed assistance, in my opinion.

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