In New York City, many of us are used to seeing a homeless person on the subway train. For a long time, it was a fact of life to see some in the streets as well. But things have changed dramatically in the last ten years.
Today, the sheer number of homeless individuals with mental health issues on the street and in the subways has increased exponentially and it is having a profound effect on all of us. Yes, this problem has been neglected for decades. However, the number of public incidents involving homeless individuals with mental health issues has gotten so bad that it has recently gained national attention.
In the last two years alone, we have witnessed individuals with mental health issues assault unsuspecting victims, push people into oncoming subway trains, and even commit homicide. Thats not to say that all homeless people are bad. In fact, most do not have mental health issues and others are just down on their luck or abandoned by a broken system. But it is getting harder to tell the good from the bad.
The Covid Pandemic only exacerbated the problem when thousands of mentally ill people were released from custody in an effort to curb arrests for non-violent offenses and to free up space in crowded jails. Yes, those folks were released into our communities. Not all but many of those have become recidivists into the very system that under reform allowed them to go free. Those very same people are often committing the crimes you see on the nightly news. Everything from assaults on the street, the subway and in our local businesses. This trend also follows changes in enforcement that lowered the priority of offenses that relate to quality of life, noise, safety, and petty criminal charges.
What does that mean for you and me? Well, more threats in the streets coming from the mentally ill and other criminals that are set loose by a broken system and emboldened by the sense of lawlessness. Don't take my word for it just look at the number of folks riding dirt motorcycles and ATV’s without a license, plates, or insurance. Look at the those blowing past red lights, speeding, stealing at the mall, or randomly attacking people. We have become an increasingly lawless society and it is evident in nearly every aspect of life. And it's not just from mentally ill perpetrators but also from petty criminals that are moving on to bigger crimes. Those threats are something that every one of us needs to contend with when we are out and about as the dangers are ever present.
What can you do? Many folks think that simply moving out of town will resolve the problem. But this situation affects more than just New York City. It pervades many communities and all of us have a duty to speak up to condemn these actions and to urge our elected officials to do something to correct our course. Having said that, let’s look at some precautions you can take to be safer on the streets.
Walking on the streets of New York City has turned into a dangerous proposition. Unlicensed dirt bikes, mopeds, scooters, and errant e-bikes all pose a threat to pedestrians. When walking about, avoid headphones and other distractions so that you can hear oncoming traffic. Even e-bikes make a low-pitched sound from the threads of the tires. Avoid standing at the crosswalk or on the street. Stay alert when crossing the street. Many pedestrians have been hit by bikes and scooters that zip between the parked cars and oncoming traffic. When walking on the sidewalk stay close to the edge of the curb as parked cars and sidewalk furniture like lamp poles and parking meters add protection to you as you walk.
Drivers need to pay extra attention when making turns and opening doors. E-bikes are virtually soundless when approaching your door so look before you open. All of these bikes are seen passing red lights, thus beware of busy intersections as they often come out of nowhere. The popular cycle wheely is something that we often see on the streets. The problem is that sometimes these people get distracted, and they can cause accidents or even hit your vehicle or pedestrians. The best thing we can do as citizens is report the conditions to 311. Reporting these conditions will give the authorities a reason to act, yes, I know-as if they should need a reason to enforce the laws. But the police operate on the “squeaky wheel” basis, meaning the more complaints an issue gets the more police resources are assigned to that problem. No complaints no police.
Random acts of violence have been a trend in recent months. Many victims were randomly attacked as they walked the streets or traveled the subways. Staying alert is a given but taking extra precautions will give you an edge. When walking the streets take care to survey the area in front of you as you walk. Look for individuals acting erratically. Avoid those individuals by crossing the street or walking around a parked car. Of course, watch out for oncoming scooters. On the subways when getting to the station look for individuals that are approaching people, perhaps asking for money. Pay close attention to those folks as they are often the point of controversy. Put some distance between you and them. That is sometimes difficult because there may be more than one on the station. Keep your back to the wall so that you can see everything coming and going. Of course, do not stand near the edge of the platform, especially on a packed station.
On the streets at night keep to the curb as recommended and stay on the outside of the corners. Staying on the inside makes you susceptible to an attack as you turn the corner. Stay on the outside and you will have a better field of view. If you see someone in waiting keep going and cross the street where you can evaluate the situation and take an alternate route. Avoid walking too close to alleys that lead to the rear of buildings. These passageways are often used to attack unsuspecting victims as they walk by. When approaching a building lobby scan for people inside and make sure you see folks you know or that look like they live there, women and children are a good indicator of safety. Young men that are alone less likely. If they continue to loiter in the lobby, wait until you can assess their behavior before doing anything.
Do not get into an elevator with someone if you feel unsafe, trust your instincts and wait for that person to take the elevator. Tell them you forgot something and walk away but do not turn your back. Make an effort to stay in the view of the public outside, perhaps near a window. For some it may be good idea to carry personal pepper spray that is easily accessible in your pocket or purse. Don't be afraid to use it if you have to.
Talk to your children and tell them to use their instincts, if it seems out of place, it probably is. Teenagers today are adept at looking at the situation from a different perspective given that they see so much of these problems playing out on social media. But that sense also makes them vulnerable to believing that they cannot be affected by those issues. While teens are less likely to be targeted by street thugs they can be targeted by other teens. Using the same rationale discussed above is a good start. Tell them to avoid crowds of young people, particularly after school and away from the school grounds where things normally happen. Avoid conflicts in school and stay away from cliques that may be involved in gang violence. Teach your children to value public order by discouraging them from using unregistered, uninsured motorbikes and by encouraging them to follow the rules.
The city has largely stopped enforcing certain ordinances such as pursuing and citing individuals on illegal motorbikes, addressing or arresting loiterers, low level drug arrests, and addressing disorderly conduct. Some say that the personal liability associated with being a police officer has discouraged them from enforcing certain violations. In fact, the elimination of indemnification for police officers in some jurisdictions has caused officers to think twice about performing certain aspects of their jobs. That will only make things worse.
But for now, keep an eye out for changing trends. Just recently, I witnessed a police team corralling illegal motorcycles on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx. There are also a legion of cops stationed every few blocks in problem areas. Hopefully that is a sign of a change in policy and perhaps an indication that we may turn the corner in this era of turning a blind eye. Maybe just maybe, we can return to a city with more law and order and yes, some safety while we are at it. Safe trails out there…