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Confronting addiction and mental illness key to ending homelessness

New York Daily News

Dec. 19

Who can argue with a mayor promising to end street homelessness as we know it within five years? We can, because Bill de Blasio’s glossy plan, which commits to adding apartments and vague medical supports, papers over real reasons why thousands of people sleep on benches and in subway stations and over grates, and some of them rant at the heavens and threaten other New Yorkers.

The problems are mental illness and addiction, and as long as they remain at the periphery rather than the center of the city’s so-called solutions, people will suffer.

Most of the 60,000-plus homeless New Yorkers living in our ever-expanding shelter system are there because of too-scarce affordable housing, or domestic violence. But for the roughly 3,600 souls on the street here, the problems are both simpler and more complex.

Over decades, this state and this country have systematically dismantled psychiatric facilities, leaving New York State’s 19.5 million people with fewer than 3,000 state psychiatric hospital beds. In their absence, mentally ill people cycle though hospital emergency rooms, shelters and jails, a psych ward spilled onto the street.

With civil libertarians insisting that personal freedom trumps health and safety, it’s virtually impossible to compel these individuals to get help unless they’ve deteriorated so badly they’ve become dangerous to themselves or others.

Totally absent from the mayor’s optimistic plans this week were results from a 30-day review of how the city takes advantage of Kendra’s Law, an underused statute that can compel individuals into treatment, and other intensive mental health interventions.

Did we say 30-day review? It’s 68 days and counting since de Blasio ordered one, in the wake of the murders of four homeless men by another homeless man. The city’s sluggishness is a depressing sign of its refusal to get real.

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