Meeting people’s mental health needs



As New Yorkers, we’re all too familiar with images of our neighbors in need of care and support. We may see them asking for money or food, sleeping on park benches or subway cars, or walking in cold weather without a shirt or shoes.

These individuals need and deserve help. And starting today, our Neighborhood Navigators will hit the streets of Manhattan to offer that help.

Neighborhood Navigators have experienced homelessness, substance use disorders, or mental health issues themselves, and who understand exactly how those in crisis are suffering. They will work to build trusting relationships with unhoused individuals who spend significant time on the street.

The ultimate goal is to voluntarily connect them to longer-term services such as housing and medical care. Navigators are funded through an unprecedented $6 million investment from my office to the nonprofit organization The Bridge, which will manage the initiative. This voluntary program seeks to proactively address very real human needs, and more broadly, address the ongoing housing and mental health crisis in our city.

This type of funding is not typical for a district attorney’s office, but we are doing it because it enhances public safety, and it’s a service New York desperately needs. Approximately one-in-five people detained on Rikers Island have a diagnosed serious mental illness.

Without proactive, preventative help, this population will continue to be subjected to victimization, and cycle through our court system and jails again and again. In short, jail is not the remedy to address mental health crises, and addressing these very real human needs will make us all safer.

But our initiative is only one solution that won’t fix the entire problem. The city’s entire housing and mental health infrastructure has failed for decades. We have a patchwork system that allows far too many people to fall through the cracks. It was further disrupted by COVID-19, which shattered our social fabric. The consequences of these failures are glaring and tragic.

If you come to Manhattan Criminal Court, you will see how the courts have become a repository for individuals who have real needs, including not having a safe place to sleep and those with mental illness. That’s why, in addition to our Neighborhood Navigators, we also invested $3 million in Court-Based Navigators, who will be in our courts supporting individuals released to the community.

Together, these two Navigator programs are a $9 million investment that proactively prevent involvement in the system in the first place and provide immediate and long-term assistance to people after their arraignments.

This dual public safety and public health crisis requires all stakeholders — from law enforcement to elected officials and from advocates to community leaders — to come together and solve this issue. From my seat as Manhattan district attorney, I see several action items we can do now to begin building a true mental health care system, and a safer city.

  • Increase New York City’s supply of supportive housing to ensure stability, care and connection for those with mental health issues.

And for those who end up being involved in the criminal justice system:

  • Expand access to responsive mental health clinics and treatment centers for the justice involved, including necessary investments in Assertive Community Treatment (ACT) teams that provide critical wraparound services.
  • Build out our problem-solving courts, which are designed to address public safety and accountability by addressing underlying issues such as mental illness and substance abuse.
  • Create a “third-lane” of secure facilities, like the Hope House in the Bronx, as an alternative to Rikers Island and jail for those individuals who cannot safely be in our communities, but need treatment and services.

Gov. Hochul has begun this important work, and we applaud her recent investments to address some of the gaps in our mental health infrastructure. Last year, Mayor Adams announced additional funding for mental health crisis response systems and supportive housing. These are important steps and we look forward to continuing the conversation with our local and state partners.

But more must be done — from government, nonprofits, private sector, and the civic community alike — to create a real mental health care system. Our Neighborhood and Court-Based Navigator programs are a much-needed solution which will provide some relief, but it is not a permanent fix that can solve the larger problem.

We hope this program provides a model that can be replicated in the years to come as part of a broader, comprehensive, mental health plan to adequately serve the needs of all New Yorkers. It is the right thing to do, and it will make all of us safer.

Bragg is the Manhattan district attorney.



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