The Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and heads of Manhattan’s most prominent Business Improvement Districts gathered in Times Square on Sunday to protest the “failure of government in the greatest and wealthiest city in the world.”

The Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and heads of Business Improvement Districts gathered in Times Square. Photo: Phil O’Brien

“Conditions on our streets are untenable. Just south of where we stand there are open-air marijuana sales, people are shooting up and shooting each other,” said Tom Harris, President of Times Square Alliance. “In one week we had individuals with mental health issues push someone into the train and knock Maria Ambrocio to the ground and cause her death.”

The Borough President told a group of media gathered on Broadway: “Every overdose is a failure of government in the greatest and wealthiest city in the world. People are dying in our streets from lack of healthcare and social services. Manhattan cannot recover unless its homeless and those struggling with addiction and mental illness recover.”

Times Square Alliance President Tom Harris. Photo: Phil O’Brien

The city has struggled during the pandemic to deal with issues around homelessness, drug addiction and mental illness. Local business leaders report that in the Midtown South Precinct area alone, CompStat data reveal a 43% increase in crime over the past year, including a 179% increase in robbery and 144% increase in felony assault. Misdemeanor assault is up 79%, and there have been 11 shootings, compared to one at this point last year.

Business leaders state in an Op-Ed published by the New York Daily News, that it is not illegal anymore to possess needles used to inject intravenous drugs, or to inject drugs in public. Thus, arrested addicts normally return to the street almost immediately. Shoplifting and theft typically go unpunished. Some individuals have been arrested dozens of times and never prosecuted.

On Sunday, the New York Post reported on NYPD issuing a directive to officers that “effective immediately, members of the service should not take any enforcement action against any individual who possesses a hypodermic needle, even when it contains residue of a controlled substance.”

Used syringes have become a common site on the streets of Hell’s Kitchen and Midtown. Photo: Catie Savage

Asked by W42ST what could be done, Harris responded, “You have to build a better mousetrap. At this point, we’re not going back to policing the addicts on the street.” He pointed to Community First — a pilot program spearheaded by the Times Square Alliance, in partnership with the Center for Court Innovation, Midtown Community Court, Breaking Ground, and Fountain House to address community concerns about Times Square and the surrounding area without defaulting to law enforcement. The pilot program has helped 134 people since launching in January of this year.

Brewer also saw the solution as getting more funding for pilot programs. “That’s why millions from the Opioid Settlement Fund awarded to New York City must flow to the nonprofits that we know are doing the work on the ground, and city agencies and commissioners must better coordinate with local BIDs and social service organizations,” she said.

The Borough President pushed the example of B-HEARD (Behavioral Health Emergency Assistance Response Division). The program took a different approach to handling mental health crisis 911 calls in Harlem, where the new initiative ran a pilot scheme from June 6 to July 7. During that month, B-HEARD teams — which include paramedics from the Fire Department’s Emergency Medical Services and social workers — responded to 107 calls. Early data shows success in responding to non-violent cases, including lower rates of hospitalization as compared to typical NYPD/EMS responses. However, in an opinion piece in the New York Post, Charles Fain Lehman disputed that social workers did better than cops at mental health response, saying that the numbers used in the study were “misleading”.

A local in Times Square watches the press conference. Photo: Phil O’Brien

In May, THE CITY NYC reported on how New York City’s $100 million ‘Diversion Centers’ for the mentally ill are sitting empty or barely used. The scheme is part of the Mayor’s Office of ThriveNYC, a broader program run by de Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, to improve the lives of New Yorkers struggling with mental health issues. ThriveNYC has come under fire for costs upwards of $1 billion and for the administration’s inability to provide evidence the program is working. Earlier in the year, de Blasio rebranded ThriveNYC — changing its name to the Mayor’s Office of Community Mental Health.

The Times Square Alliance has joined with the Garment District Alliance, the 34th Street Partnership, and the Grand Central Partnership to call for action from the next mayor and the new City Council. They have delivered a five-point plan:

  1. In collaboration with the community, law enforcement, district attorneys and the Center for Court Innovation, develop strategies to correct conditions on our streets including legislative reform and revised tactics that offer diversionary options or punitive actions when appropriate.
  2. Increase state psychiatric beds for those who need an institutional setting and in all five boroughs establish well-managed rehabilitation centers providing proper services and oversight.
  3. Reform parole guidelines and stop the state from releasing people directly to homeless shelters without a reentry plan.
  4. Work with elected officials to revise the bail reform bill.
  5. Increase state resources for supportive housing and develop an effective process to quickly get troubled people to settings where they get support.

Additional reporting by Alexandra Alexa.

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