Episode 173: How to Sell Police Crackdowns on Homeless People to Liberals
Citations Needed | December 21, 2022 | Transcript
Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.
Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed a podcast on the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.
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Adam: Yeah. So if you could go to Patreon, look up Citations Needed and subscribe to us there, we’d be extremely, extremely grateful.
Nima: This is actually our final full length episode of 2022. It’s been a hell of a year, we are in the middle of our sixth season of Citations Needed. We’ve done over 170 full length episodes, nearly 200 News Briefs, we’ve been at this for a while and we are wrapping up yet another calendar year and just really cannot thank all of our listeners enough, you all listening right now, cannot thank you enough for your ongoing support of Citations Needed, and especially this holiday time fills me with so much cheer and goodwill that I will extend yet more gratitude to you all.
Adam: Yes, we’re very grateful for the support we’ve had this year, and we’re very much looking forward to our second semester at the beginning of next year, the second half of the sixth season. We’re still going strong. We have a bunch of great episodes lined up and so we’re really excited for 2023. We plan on jumping the shark in 2028 so for now we’re still cooking and booking.
Nima: “The city has had 125 daily interactions,” New York City Mayor Eric Adams tells the Daily News. “We’re working to solve the homelessness crisis, with innovative mental health interventions,” San Francisco mayor London Breed tells reporters. The city needs to “clean up homeless encampments” countless city officials tell us. Everywhere we turn, our elected — largely democratic — governors and mayors are talking about, quote, “solving the homelessness crisis,” without specifying what, exactly, their plans entail.
Adam: Saying elected officials are going to harass and displace the homeless population until they’re incarcerated or leave our city and wealthy neighborhood sounds unseemly and inhumane. But this — minus the occasional and insufficient attempts to offer public and affordable housing — is more or less the strategy of most big cities: Send in police to “sweep up” encampments, enforce low level drug offenses and ticket the unhoused for loitering and camping. But saying this is the plan sounds mean and gross, so over the past couple of years, as America’s housing crisis has grown more acute and the end of covid era tenant protections unceremoniously sunset, a cottage industry of pleasant sounding euphemisms have emerged to sell police-led homeless crackdowns to squeamish liberals.
Nima: The right-wing, historically, is fairly upfront with its bootstrap, austerity logic and rhetoric, and they, for the most part, don’t run major cities where the homelessness crisis manifests. Liberals and progressives — short on resources and political incentive to actually address the underlying issues affecting their cities — need to sell the same played out, discredited carceral attempts at removing Visible Poverty but, unlike their Republican counterparts, don’t do so in such explicit anti-poor terms. So a PR regime emerges to paper over these glaring contradictions, leading to heretofore unseen levels of bullshittery.
Adam: Today we are going to examine four popular euphemisms employed by Blue city leaders to sell the same old carceral playbook to their wary, self-identifying progressive constituents, how these programs do little to address the central issues of a lack of affordable and free housing, and how city leaders — with wildly insufficient federal support for housing, a foaming anti-homeless media and suffering from institutional political cowardice — are left with little more than meaningless “emergency declarations,” Tough Guy, Take Charge press conferences, and nice-sounding rehashes of the same failed, cruel policies of austerity and precarity.
Nima: Later on the show we’ll be joined by Henna Khan is a criminal defense attorney, litigator and now an advisor at The Wren Collective. She previously served as a staff attorney for the Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem.
Henna Khan: Police are trained to look for crime, police are armed, they are trained to use force, they are trained to ensure compliance and they are grossly unprepared to deal with people who are struggling in severe mental health crisis, and the data shows that police contact actually escalates issues where someone is experiencing a crisis, just their presence escalates a situation because they’re uniformed, they’re armed, it’s a hostile situation.
Adam: So for this very special Christmas themed episode about homelessness, to sort of keep with the Dickensian theme, don’t Google opinions on the Civil War, by the way, but this is sort of a more bleeding heart version of domestic politics of Victorian England, Victorian Britain rather. We did an episode of homelessness about four years ago, a two parter, this is the spiritual sequel to that, as we have a tendency to say, and that dealt mostly with the way local news and right-wing media demagogue the homeless. But one thing we haven’t really talked about is the way in which liberal and progressive messaging serves many of the same ends, but in a way that’s a little bit more nice, and this is kind of right in Citations Needed’s wheelhouse. I’ve written about this about three times for my Substack. So we’ve been wanting to do this for some time, and because it’s the holiday season, we wanted to sort of do it now because we do think it’s relevant to the kind of themes that we typically see in our holiday schlock, which is to say, humanity, but humanity packaging without really the good results.
Nima: “Are there no prisons?… Are there no workhouses?”
Adam: Exactly, and so the basic premise of this episode, we’re going to assert, we don’t get too ideological on the show or sort of overtly ideological in terms of theory, but this is kind of a Marxist 101 premise that we operate under, and you can sort of agree with it or disagree with it, if you wish. But basically, a certain level of destitution and poverty, we have mentioned this on the show before, is necessary for our system to work in terms of low wages and massive inequality.
Nima: Precarity is built into capitalism.
Adam: Right? This is, again, hippies will tell you what the real crime is, but in this case, we have a really, really good A/B testing for this in the last two, three years, which we didn’t really have previously or we had in terms we had to kind of infer more or look at more far back historical examples were when the federal government was providing enhanced unemployment during the 2020 and 2021, until it sunset and August and September 2021, there was quite explicit arguments from center and right-wing economists, and even some liberal economists, that providing people with wages that were above the minimum wage to stay home was what was driving up worker power, what was driving up wages for workers. Now they’ll say it’s what led to inflation, but of course, we know that’s not true, because countries even without that had inflation.
Nima: Right, and because inflation was primarily driven by corporate price gouging.
Adam: That too, because of the freakish nature and one off nature of this once in a hundred year pandemic, the social arrangement was modified such that we paid people to stay home, and poverty reduced and child poverty reduced quite a bit, especially when you combine it with the child tax credit of early 2021. So those aggressively lobbying to get rid of enhanced unemployment and the stimulus payments and the child tax credit, were quite explicit that we needed to do this because, frankly, there were not enough poor people.
Nima: That’s right.
Adam: There wasn’t enough precarity.
Nima: And there wasn’t enough suffering.
Adam: Well, not only is there not because to have the credible threat of suffering, to suppress wages, you have to have some level of actual fixed suffering, and that if you have too many people who are living comfortably, again, if you knew anyone, as I’m sure a lot of our listeners did, who got the UI who were previously working in retail jobs, restaurant jobs, low wage jobs, whether they were waiters or doulas, you know that their life was like meaningfully improved, you would see them and they’d say, ‘Oh, it’s great, I’m actually taking classes, I’m reading this book I’ve always wanted to read.’
Nima: ‘Spending more time with my family.’
Adam: ‘Spent more time with my fucking children, god forbid.’ And this was not okay. The social arrangements do not equate. It was not okay, quite explicitly. They used somewhat euphemistic terms, people like Lindsey Graham didn’t even bother. They’re like, ‘Oh, there’s not enough poor people.’ And so the fundamental premise we’re going to assert for this episode, which I think is pretty uncontestable, is that the goal of liberalism as an institution is to preserve the fundamental outlines of society, it’s to preserve capitalism and preserve the arrangement. But to make it more palatable. Liberalism is far more preferable to fascism and hard right austerity, because you’d rather get beaten with a cane 10 times versus 50 times, but you’re still going to get beat with the kid, and that the point of liberalism and how it handles poverty is to ameliorate the suffering and to sort of make it less painful, and so much of what we’re going to talk about in terms of euphemisms for supporting a carceral response to houselessness does have liberal components, there are efforts to spend money on housing, but what we’re going to argue is that those are largely incidental and not nearly sufficient, and in many ways, and this is going to sound like an excuse, but it’s not really something local leaders can do a lot about because they can’t deficit spend. This is actually fundamentally a federal failure in terms of the actual monies it would take to house people in need to be housed. So in the absence of that money in the absence of the ability to spend 100 billion dollars or whatever number that progressive economists have come up with to actually house people and to build enough public housing fast enough, whatever that number is, they have to come up with half baked supply slides solutions in terms of providing some modicum of housing. But really what they need to do is just do the same old thing you did, which we’ve done throughout history over the last few hundred years, which is to basically criminalize poverty and to harass homeless people until they either leave a specific jurisdiction or leave wealthy areas or tourist focused areas, through the so-called sweeps, the so-called anti-camping laws, and then launder them through the carceral system in various capacities, sometimes straight up prison and jail, sometimes these kinds of diversion programs, which are preferable, but again, sort of the same thing, or the mental health institutions, which they’re out of in 72 hours, and then they just go back to the streets. But there’s never any actual permanent fixed solution because they don’t have the resources for that or the political conviction for that.
Nima: There’s also the issue, Adam, of the deserving and the undeserving poor. So there are those people who in terms of the way our system is set up quote-unquote “should” be working, that this is why UI is such a danger to this idea, the idea that if you can work you should be working, and if you can’t, then maybe there are some means of charity, but if there is visible poverty that has to be swept away, pushed under the rug, out of sight, out of mind, and that is how our society is run, there’s this threat of destitution, and if you reach a certain level, if you are unfit to be seen on the streets by our polite liberal society, you must be removed while those who can work must of course work and it gets back to this Dickensian idea, but even before Victorian era workhouses and debtors prisons, things like that, we can go back even a few more hundred years Adam, to see the real advent of these anti-vagrancy acts and how they have permeated through our society.
So historian Peter Higginbotham has written this, quote:
“In the fourteenth century, in the aftermath of the Black Death (1348–9), when labour was in short supply and wages were rising steeply, several Acts were passed aimed at forcing all able-bodied men to work and keeping wages at their old levels. These measures led to labourers roaming around the country looking for areas where the wages were high and where labour laws were not too strictly enforced. Some also took to begging under the pretence of being ill or crippled. In 1349, the Ordinance of Labourers prohibited private individuals from giving relief to able-bodied beggars. In 1388, the Statute of Cambridge introduced regulations restricting the movements of all labourers and beggars. Labourers wishing to move out of their own county ‘Hundred’ needed a letter of authority from the ‘good man of the Hundred’ — the local Justice of the Peace — or risked being put in the stocks.
“A century later, in 1494, the Vagabonds and Beggars Act determined that: ‘Vagabonds, idle and suspected persons shall be set in the stocks for three days and three nights and have none other sustenance but bread and water and then shall be put out of Town. Every beggar suitable to work shall resort to the Hundred where he last dwelled, is best known, or was born and there remain upon the pain aforesaid.’ Worse was to come — the Statute of Legal Settlement in 1547 enacted that a ‘sturdy beggar’ could be whipped and branded through the right ear with a hot iron.”
This was followed by other acts like the Statute of Legal Settlement in 1547 which issued punishment for vagrancy, the 1597 Act for the Repression of Vagrancy that required anyone quote, “deemed to be a rogue, vagabond, or sturdy beggar, who was found begging could be stripped naked from the middle upwards and openly whipped until his or her body be bloody, and then pass to his or her birthplace or last residence,” end quote. So you know, things like this, in addition to the Settlement Act of 1662, basically made vagrancy and wandering and begging a crime. Criminalized vagrancy, criminalized itinerancy to the point where corporal punishment and then banishment would follow.
Now, England transformed rapidly as the 18th century dawned and poor relief changed. The population of England skyrocketed and people migrated in huge populations to cities. London for instance exploded 500 percent in population in two centuries becoming the first European city to reach a million people by 1800. In this mass influx, cities like London experienced widespread poverty and in turn the cities had to come up with ways for so-called relief. Many responded by creating workhouses from the 1720s onward. Now, workhouses in theory promised to solve a number of problems. They could tap into an existing labor pool, they could put people to work, they could be funded themselves by the labor produced, could therefore then enable tax cuts to more wealthy people. And, of course, in the most Protestant tradition is could instill a work ethic for those that it housed who were assumed to be there because they drank too much or were unruly or they lived immoral lives. So the poor would get no free ride to salvation, no they would be disciplined and they would also allow the state to turn a profit.
Adam: Yeah, and what’s important to understand for the purposes of this episode also is that the creation of poor houses and the distinction between the deserved and undeserved poor was primarily a liberal invention. It was not done by the Tories, it was done by the Whigs. There’s a, broadly speaking, it’s a little reductionist, but broadly speaking, the more liberal party.
Peter Ackroyd in his book Dominion, which was a history of England during the Victorian era, wrote, quote:
“So a new system of poor relief was introduced at this time, with the purpose of distinguishing between those who would not work and those who could not work. The old Poor Law was maintained by the people of the local parish, who best knew the circumstances of those who claimed relief; it had been operating since the beginning of the seventeenth century but was now regarded by the new breed of bureaucrats as outmoded and outworn. The New Poor Law was proposed in 1834 as a model of organization and efficiency. It was the Benthamite way. The old parishes were grouped into ‘unions’ which, under the supervision of three Poor Law commissioners in Whitehall, controlled the novel institution of ‘workhouses’ as instruments of containment and control. The new policy of central determination and local administration became the key contribution of the nineteenth century to social policy.
“The workhouses were hated by the people, and particularly by the poor; they were the agents of oppression and were known as ‘Bastilles’. To be obliged to enter a workhouse was, in effect, to go into a prison. The workhouse was also the child of the reformed parliament; no previous parliament could have created anything so uniform or so bureaucratic. It needed Whigs, the reformers, the dogmatists and the Benthamites to bring it to fruition. It should also be remembered that the New Poor Law was proposed and passed by the Whigs rather than the Tories. Many Tories supported it, of course, but there was a band of radical Tories who denounced it as the enemy of the people. The suspicion of such institutions soon ran very deep, and accounts in part for the reluctance of parents to send their children into the new schools, which were often built in the dreary grey stone of the workhouse. Disraeli knew it as the new ‘Brutalitarianism’. This image of dour severity and no less harsh sanctimony endured for many decades as an example of what came to be known as ‘Victorianism’. It sprang out of high ambition and solid principle but, as soon as the light shone upon it, it became oppressive and disheartening.”
And so from the beginning, you have this idea that the institutionalization and the systemification of a poor underclass, with this very important distinction of the kind of deserved and undeserved, and the idea that we cannot, under any circumstances, allow an able bodied person to be idle, or people we perceive to be able bodied to be idle, that was the sort of great sin, and that everyone who could work had to work regardless of if that was basically a slave wage or poverty wage, and that that fundamental arrangement had to be maintained to keep labor markets liquid and to keep people working. You could not have a situation where the state, even if it could afford it, which you could even argue in the early mid 18th century, the British state could have probably afforded it, even if you can afford to take all the poor and feed them and housing, the second you do that you create a moral hazard that gives the workers one notch above them way too much temptation to just sit home and gives them way too much bargaining power as a union because if a worker can at any point, if their alternative to getting sexually harassed at fucking Applebee’s, or being forced into working a triple shift as a ditch digger, if their alternative is to go live somewhere with safety and security and comfort, then that makes them not as disciplined and not as easily discipline-able, and so this liberal impulse to sort of maintain this system in a more humane way, is the central function of liberalism in a wildly unequal capitalist state.
Nima: This also has to do with the removal of unwanteds from respectable society. Catherine Cox and Hilary Marland, in a paper called, “A Burden on the County: Madness, Institutions of Confinement and the Irish Patient in Victorian Lancashire,” wrote this, quote:
“In the final three decades of the nineteenth century, statistics produced by the Lunacy Commissioners demonstrated an alarming increase in the number of pauper lunatics confined in lunatic asylums and workhouses in England and Wales.”
They go on to state this about the creation of so many more asylums for the mentally ill at the time, quote:
“The cost of supporting Irish paupers in receipt of outdoor and indoor relief continued to drain the resources of the Lancashire Poor Law Unions long after the Famine, although this varied between unions. In February 1852, the editors of the Preston Guardian, which was particularly vociferous in its depiction of the Irish problem, described how ‘The miserable and demoralised crowds sent from Ireland into Liverpool, partly help to increase the Irish colonies already too extensively rooted here. … The Irish tramping through that district, or casually employed in ‘potato getting’, give it a character from which it would be otherwise free’.”
Adam: Yeah, and so here we have this idea of poor people are poor and because of moral failings and the proxies we use for moral failings are mental illness and drug addiction, that they are not poor because the system requires a certain percentage of people to be destitute, they are poor because they have some, you know, maybe they don’t call it a moral failing, some sort of deficiency.
Adam: It’s not to say there aren’t issues of substance use and mental health among the unhoused, of course, but that is not the reason they’re unhoused. Their mental illness is not why they’re unhoused, they were left to slip through the cracks, because we have a system that doesn’t support people with those issues.
Nima: Right. This very thing was actually depicted in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and this being our holiday episode, our Christmas episode, I feel it’s necessary that we recount this scene, where a couple of people visit Ebenezer Scrooge at his office on Christmas Eve to ask for a donation to help the poor. So let’s actually listen to this part of A Christmas Carol from the 1951 version of the Scrooge story, with Scrooge played by Alastair Sim.
Man #1: At this festive season of the year Mr. Scrooge, it is more than usually desirable, that some slight provision be made for the poor and destitute.
Man #2: Many thousands are in want sir, in need of common necessaries. Hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts sir.
Scrooge: Are there no prisons?
Man #1: Plenty of prisons.
Scrooge: And the warehouses, are they still in operation?
Man #1: They are, though I wish with all my heart they were not.
Scrooge: I was afraid from what you said at first that something had occurred to stop them in their useful cause.
Man #1: Under the impression these places can scarcely furnish Christmas cheer for the mind and body with a multitude. A few of us have endeavored to form a fund for the poor, to buy them food and drink and beans and water.
Man #2: What can I put you down for sir?
Man #2: You wish to be anonymous?
Scrooge: I wish to be left alone. Since you asked me what I wish gentleman, that is my answer. I help to support the institutions I mentioned, they cost enough, and those who are badly off must go there.
Man #2: Many can’t go there, and many would rather die.
Scrooge: If they’d rather die, they’d better do it and decrease the surplus population. Good afternoon, gentlemen.
Adam: Now cut to modern day, now that we’ve given you that primer on the history of Anglo American liberal guilt massaging, we’re going to go into sort of what we consider the contemporary examples of euphemisms that liberal politicians use to sell the same old carceral playbook to make themselves feel better.
Nima: So this takes us to the modern day, and by modern day, I mean, actually, just a few weeks ago, on November 29th 2022, New York City Mayor Eric Adams, announced a new mental health policy for New York, and in his announcement came a lot of the same tropes that we hear again and again about interventions, about helping those that can’t help themselves, and this time around the policy allows police and other city officials to involuntarily hospitalize those they deem mentally ill. This is how he announced the plan.
Eric Adams: Good morning New York City. I want to talk to you about a crisis we see all around us. People with severe and untreated mental illness who live out in the open on the streets, in our subways, and in danger and in need. We see them every day and our city workers are familiar with their stories. The man standing all day on the street across from the building he was evicted from 25 years ago waiting to be let in. The shadow boxer on the street corner in Midtown, mumbling to himself, as he jabs at an invisible adversary. The unresponsive man unable to get off the train at the end of the line without assistance from our mobile crisis team. These New Yorkers and hundreds of others like them are in urgent need of treatment yet often refuse it when offered. The very nature of their illnesses keeps them from realizing they need intervention and support. Without that intervention, they remain lost and isolated from society, tormented by delusions and disordered thinking. They cycle in and out of hospitals and jails but New Yorkers rightly expect our city to help them and help them we will.
Adam: He is conflating two different things, which is someone having an apparent public acute mental health issue that makes them violent, which everyone can agree that if someone is being violent, and or being erratic in public that there should be some intervention, ideally by a medical health professional, not the police, but we will say somebody, right? He’s saying that if you display any, based on the observations of an NYPD officer, that if you sort of look vaguely mentally unwell, and by the way, historically, the Adams administration has argued that living in the subway was per se evidence of mental deficiency, you are effectively making poverty evidence of mental illness, you’re using the slippery slope that, again, intuitively, you say, ‘Oh, yeah some guys crazy, let’s get him off the street.’ But two things. Number one, that definition is now expanded to be totally meaningless, where random NYPD officers can now just judge if they feel like someone’s mentally unwell even if they’re not displaying violent behavior, and two, and more importantly, is that to be clear, these people are not actually getting mental health that’s long term or sustainable mental health, right? If someone’s having, let’s say, some kind of schizophrenic episode, that is, let’s say drug induced or whatever, you can calm that person down and get them sober and they will have some point of rationality afterwards, right? It may not last, but that is something that is possible, you kind of put out the fire at the time, and that’s the impression they want to make. Now you talk to anyone, including our guest by the way, that is not what’s happening in New York, because they’re just getting cycled through a system for two to three days when there’s not nearly enough beds in these mental health institutions, and then they’re out of the hospital in a couple of days, because you can’t just, there’s not the resources or funding to actually give people the treatment they need. So the key is the mayor’s office, and a lot of these big city mayors, we’re going to talk a lot about Adams because it’s New York City, and it’s the biggest city in the country, but other mayors do this is that it’s like a kid trying to convince their parents they’re eating their vegetables by just kind of moving it around the plate. It’s just displacement from the sweeps to these mental health lockups. Well, you never hear reporters ask or a lot of anyone in the public ask, with the exception of some activists, is what happens after they’re arrested, what happens after they’re detained? Because they don’t want you to ask that question because the reality is they’re just back on the streets in a couple days, because the goal is to harass and arrest them until they just move to a different city, and so one of the ways they do this is they talk about this very generic term “interactions,” or mental health “interventions,” and it sort of sounds good, which is it sounds reasonable. The New York Daily News reported that, according to the Adams administration, that on their first day of their new subway policy last March, which is when they chose a freezing cold weather day in early March to have a new policy of basically rounding up people they perceive as being unwell or any really poor people in the subway and kicking them out of the subway where they can have warmth back up to the streets where they don’t have warmth, they told reporters they had quote, “125 daily interactions,” which again really sounds good, and it sounds much better than 125 arrests or 125 involuntary commitments or 125 tickets for camping or loitering or other other kinds of petty crimes that are oftentimes drugs, you know, oftentimes they’ll find drugs on people, and then they book them in jail for drugs, because drugs are still illegal, despite what you may have heard.
Nima: “Officer involved intervention.”
Adam: And if you look at these homeless outreach teams in New York City, and this is true in a lot of other cities, Los Angeles has a very iconic picture of five heavily armed cops and the chyron at the bottom reads, “homelessness outreach team,” and that’s pretty much what it is in New York City. It’s a bunch of cops flanked by a couple social workers who are actually somewhat trained, and the goal is to just get them fuck out the way and everybody knows that which is what makes these euphemisms so interesting to dissect. So I asked the Daily News, I said, well, did the Adams office say what interaction is and of course they didn’t. Because really what it is is the police harassing people to leave public areas, tourist areas, wealthy areas. Greg G. Smith, reporter for the city wrote, quote:
“State Office of Mental Health guidelines released shortly after the mayor’s news conference state that a person on a train who appears to be mentally ill can be removed to a hospital for observation if the person ‘displays an inability to meet basic living needs even when there is no recent dangerous act.’”
So based on the criteria from last spring, there is debate about whether or not this is still the current criteria that is still being litigated, because they’re being very vague, even as of late, that basically being poor is per se or being destitute as per se evidence of mental disability. And obviously, that has pretty Orwellian implications in terms of what the state authority — but we’re not even going to be precious civil libertarians about this. The point is, they need to come up with new ways of just getting visible poverty out of the way of the quote-unquote “average” New Yorker, and the one of the ways you do that as you pathologize poverty, that people are poor because of a mental health issue, not because of failure of society to provide for them.
Nima: And then in turn, you criminalize mental illness and the act of being homeless.
Adam: Correct because the goal is to just harass people until they leave or they end up incarcerated. The goal is to get them out of the way.
Nima: Another way that oftentimes liberal officials will speak about these anti-homelessness policies is by greenwashing, that is using police to remove these unwanted populations from the streets, why not out of charity necessarily, but to save the environment. So one example, the California Sierra Club, somewhat controversially came out in support of banning homeless encampments earlier this year in Sacramento. This from CBS News on April 25, 2022, under the headline, “Environmental Nonprofit Calls For Cleanup Of Homeless Along American River Parkway As Fire Season Approaches.” Quote:
“There is a new call to clear out the homeless to prevent fires along the American River Parkway. According to the environmental nonprofit The Sierra Club, the two issues go hand in hand. And now, it’s calling on the city and county to take some bold steps — and fast. The Sierra Club says fires have tripled along the parkway in the last three years, and with fire season knocking on our door, they want the homeless moved out. ‘We want more urgency in getting people off the river,’ said Barbara Leary, chairperson of the nonprofit’s Sacramento chapter. Leary added, ‘I’m also afraid we’re going to see more people dying along the river.’ The environmental non-profit is behind a new report that shows the parkway saw 156 fires last year. That is three times the number it saw in 2019.”
Allegedly. In Utah, democratic elections in Salt Lake used “protecting the environment” to evict hundreds from a homeless camp according to a fox article in Salt Lake City, Utah, “Clean up underway in homeless camp near Utah State Capitol,” also from April of 2022. The article is quoting Salt Lake County Health Department’s spokesperson Nicholas Rupp, he said, quote:
“This day, this kind of work isn’t anybody’s favorite work…I don’t think anybody on the health department team or any of our partners enjoy doing this work, but it’s something we recognize that has to be done to protect our environment for all Salt Lake County residents.”
In 2019, San Francisco residents tried to prevent the building of a homeless shelter citing “environmental concerns.” The Guardian headline would read, “San Francisco: wealthy opponents of new shelter claim homeless are bad for environment.” The article would read:
“The wealthy San Francisco residents who launched a crowdfunding campaign to block construction of a new homeless shelter in their waterfront neighborhood are employing a new tactic: arguing that homeless people are bad for the environment. In a lawsuit filed against the city of San Francisco and the California State Lands Commission, the residents called for the project to undergo an environmental review before breaking ground.”
And you see this time and again, especially of late that, again, it’s sort of bad form to say ‘I don’t want homeless people near my house or I don’t want homeless people in my area,’ so you say, ‘Oh, they have fires, or it’s not sanitary,’ and all that is true, but again, they’re going to be doing those same thing somewhere else, because we haven’t actually addressed the fundamental fucking problem. So really, what you’re saying is just get it out of my neighborhood, get it out of my eyesight, and then again, I don’t care about the river 500 meters downstream, because that’s someone else’s problem or the river in another county or the river another state because no one’s talking about actually solving the fundamental problem, which is that we need to give people places to live.
Nima: And since you mentioned solving the fundamental problem, Adam, that takes us to our third euphemism that is often heard in these discussions, which really has everything to do with where the emphasis is placed. So for instance, when we hear politicians talk about solving the homelessness crisis, that’s not the same thing as people talking about solving the homelessness crisis. Note where the emphasis lands.
Adam: Yeah, this is a popular rhetorical sleight of hand because it sort of sounds unassailable to say, ‘I’m going to solve the homelessness crisis,’ and when someone says they’re going to solve the homelessness crisis, it’s really important to understand that three different groups hear three different things. Leftists will hear ‘Oh, I guess we have to end the conditions that cause homelessness.’
Nima: Right, solving the homelessness crisis.
Adam: Correct. Conservatives will hear ‘Oh, cops are going to come by and deal with the problem by any means necessary.’ And the third category, liberals, hear a kind of vague, squishy idea that someone’s going to come in and clean it and they don’t really want to think too much about how the sausage is made.
Nima: It’s a technocratic solution, right? But there’s a solution that doesn’t get to the root causes.
Adam: I don’t want to know the details. I don’t want to know what happens after the quote-unquote “interaction,” I just sort of want to just kind of go out of the way.
Nima: Right. Can it be solved please?
Nima: Let’s fix this.
Adam: Right. And so Eric Adams then got into trouble because he did another metaphor where he compared homeless people to a cancer. He said in a press conference in spring of last year, quote, “You can’t put a BandAid on a cancerous sore. That is not how you solve the problem. You must remove the cancer and start the healing process.” Now understandably, activists took this to mean that the cancer is the human beings who are homeless. Deputy Executive Director for the Coalition for the Homeless in New York City, Shelley North said, quote, “It is sickening to hear Mayor Adams liken unsheltered homeless people to a cancer, they are human beings.” But Adams defenders would say, ‘Oh, well, he actually just meant like — ’
Nima: Homelessness itself, the scourge of homelessness is the cancer. Right.
Adam: Right, and this is the cleverness of this vague liberal language because you never really have to specify are you railing against the underlying conditions that create homelessness? Well, of course not. He’s the, again, most funded by hedge funds, most funded by real estate, rah, rah, capitalists, rah rah, go, you know, go business in New York. So obviously, that’s not really his criticism. And the analogy, I would use this, this is similar to how people at Davos talk about inequality. Every couple years, the Davos meeting where the elites of the elites go meet in the mountains of Switzerland, and especially after Occupy, there would be all these headlines.
So ABC News two years ago, said, quote, “Inequality on the top of the agenda at Davos,” and it says, like, inequality is the main concern of the rich and you’ll see this a lot also with the Pentagon and climate change. So there’ll be headlines in CBS News that read that the Pentagon is, quote, “concerned about climate change.” But here’s what’s really important to say, when Eric Adams says he wants to solve the homelessness crisis, or when Dabo says that their number one priority is inequality or when the Pentagon says their number one concern is climate change, they’re not talking about it in the way that you and I talk about it. They’re not concerned with solving homelessness in the sense of giving people homes and massively reducing inequality. Just as Davos is not concerned about inequality, solving inequality in any meaningful sense. They view inequality like terrorism or loose nukes or some other threat, right? They are the kings looking down at the peasants revolt of 1381 saying, ‘Oh, I’m worried about the inequality, wink wink,’ which is to say we need to rely on security services to keep these people in line, and just like the Pentagon views, climate change is something that is a threat risk, right? Something that can lead to more immigration or can lead to disastrous climate change which can affect their ability to deploy to a forward position.
Nima: Right. Water wars.
Adam: Right, exactly. And really, what they mean when they worry about climate change is building more, shoring up the defenses of existing military bases near the equator. And so it’s really important to understand that when someone says we need to solve the homelessness crisis, that can mean very different things to different people, just as dealing with the “crime issue,” quote-unquote, can mean locking up millions of Black people or it can mean dealing with underlying conditions that create the need for crime in the first place, and the liberal democratic electeds in a lot of these cities are extremely good about always being vague about what they mean. Because if you look at the fine print, especially when it comes to things like advocating for homelessness, you know, quote-unquote, “sweeps,” which sounds very anodyne, right? ‘Oh, it’s a sweep. Yeah, it’s dirty. Just get it out of the way.’
Adam: If you look at the fine print, it’s just more cops and harassment, and that’s ultimately what you end up getting, and then they’ll sometimes say, you know, we’re going to do $250 million for more shelters, but shelters, of course, are useless because you can’t live in a shelter that just keeps you not freezing that night, but doesn’t actually solve the problem.
Nima: They’re also incredibly unsafe, and most people don’t want to go there.
Adam: Yeah, well, you know, ‘I’ve lobbied the state to provide more permanent housing,’ and that’s fine and that’s good, but it’s never even remotely sufficient, and the reason we know it’s not sufficient is because New York still has the largest homeless population in the country other than California and Hawaii.
Nima: This takes us to our fourth and final euphemism that we hear a lot, and this has to do with officials talking about providing people with housing without ever really specifying what those policies would entail or having to follow through on them after the initial press conference. We saw this with the recent Adams press conference from November 29 of this year, he said this quote, “We want all New Yorkers to have access to a safe place to live and we are working to expand the supply of supportive and low barrier housing. We’re also piloting innovative models to connect people in shelter with the services they need to succeed, including Medicaid, home- and community-based services, which includes mental health care, socialization and connection to housing,” end quote. Now, that alone doesn’t sound bad. Those are not bad things. That all sounds great. But what policies are actually put in place to make that a reality rarely come to fruition.
Adam: Right because no one ever follows up on it. You know, if I announced a policy that I’m going to ramp up going after quote-unquote “open air drug use,” which is to say just sending in cops to enforce drug laws. If I say I’m going to start doing sweeps and cleanups and these kind of militaristic sounding, ‘I’m going to come in and sort of remove them,’ that kind of sounds bad and anyone with half a brain cell and half a heart will say, ‘Well, okay, well, obviously, they’re just going to come back because they’re homeless.’ So you’d have to kind of vaguely gesture towards more housing, but you’re never really held to these commitments, as long as it sort of remains vague and you’re working on it, there’s this long process for money that is always kind of a mysterious process without any concrete results, but the carceral element, well that we have the money for, the police are well funded.
Nima: Well, right because the violence on the front end is promised and enacted. The follow through, the next step is mentioned but rarely followed through on.
Adam: Yeah. So in February of this year, there was a push poll in The Washington Post that really is kind of a 101 manufacturing consent for cruel policies. The headline read, quote, “Majority of D.C. residents support clearing of homeless encampments, Post poll finds.” So this one of these great, we’re only doing this evil thing because the people want it, but it’s not what the poll said. The actual poll asked respondents if they support, quote, “shutting down tent encampments if some have been offered a one-year housing voucher from the city,” — note the weasel word “some” is doing a lot of work here — and 53 percent of residents agreed with that statement. But that’s not what the headline said, the headline didn’t say majority of DC residents support clearing homeless encampments if the city provides people housing for at least a year.
Nima: Or rather, the majority of DC residents support providing a year of housing to the homeless, right? You can frame it a completely different way but they choose to remove the if and only keep the clearing of the encampments.
Adam: So as local D.C. activist Jesse Rabinowitz notes, the D.C. Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services acknowledged that half of those weren’t even offered housing vouchers and that;s just based on their own probably juiced up numbers. And so the question really should have said, quote, “Knowing that half of those evicted will not be offered housing, do you support shutting down tent encampments,” which of course would solicit a completely different answer. And this is how it works. You always keep the promise of housing vague, you gesture to it, you kind of front load it, because we know that morally people don’t want to harass — not most people, fascists don’t give a shit, right-wingers probably don’t really care — but a lot of liberals and progressives, a lot of maybe even independent sort of morally sound people, they don’t want to harass and toss the possessions of and displace homeless people if there’s nowhere for them to go. And since we know, again, by definition, there’s not sufficient housing for these people, otherwise, the vast, vast majority of them would be in it. Please don’t message me being like, ‘Some people choose to be homeless.’ Yeah. Okay. That’s like less than 1 percent. So we’re not talking about that. If you choose to be homeless because of some lifestyle choice or ideological, primitive disposition, that’s fine, but it’s not what we’re talking about. But most people, if they had a safe, secure home, they would choose it, and we all know that to be true, because those that have that option, readily take it. That doesn’t exist and so what you have to do is you have to say, ‘Okay, we’re going to do this thing we’ve always done which is just sending the police to go harass these fucking people but that seems a little bit dicey, morally, so don’t worry, we’re also kind of working on housing, sort of.’ You saw this with the initial subway sweeps of Eric Adams in February and March of this year, where he’d always say, ‘Oh, we’re offering them shelter,’ and then if you look at their own data, less than 2 percent of people will take the shelter, and again, a shelter is not a home, a shelter is just a stopgap. And the reason is because, you know, the very next day, The Daily News and The New York Post report how the shelters are full of cockroaches, they’re full of disease, there’s zero COVID protocols, people are broken up with families, people are broken up with pets, there’s a lot of abstinence-only drug arrangements. They’re not places that people can live with comfort, safety and security. So by definition, for most people, the streets are actually safer and more comfortable for them the shelter system, but so long as it remains this kind of, you know, moral failing on the part of individuals, because that’s the way the mayor framed it, the mayor said, ‘Oh, well, 90 percent of people rejected shelter,’ right? It sort of puts the onus on them. This is the kind of great PR thing you do.
Nima: Right. That’s why you can force hospitalization or force quote-unquote “intervention,” right? Because, ‘Hey, you know, they won’t even accept it if it’s there.’
Adam: And that’s what Eric Adams and other liberal mayors keep repeating, but that’s not true at all, which we’ll get into with our guest.
Nima: Yes, to talk about this more, we’re now going to be joined by Henna Khan is a criminal defense attorney, litigator and now an advisor at The Wren Collective. She previously served as a staff attorney for the Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem. Henna is going to join us in just a moment. Stay with us.
Nima: We are joined now by Henna Khan. Henna, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.
Henna Khan: Thanks so much for having me.
Adam: So let’s begin by talking about the mental health plan that Mayor Eric Adams of New York has recently rolled out as a kind of an entry point into this broader topic. You and your colleagues argue that the language that he’s employing, the language of alternatives to systems of incarceration and control in a way that is sort of co-opting their nominal or original intent. So I kind of want to begin by talking about what Eric, because there’s been some confusion on this, I know that sometimes, in some progressive circles people are kind of well, what is it? How is this going to play out in reality versus what it looks like on paper? Can you sort of lay out what the plan is, how it’s being presented, and what are some of the sort of gaps in the rhetoric versus how this will manifest in reality?
Henna Khan: Right. So the actual plan, direct police and other first responders to detain anyone who “appears to be mentally ill” and “displays an inability to meet basic living needs,” those are quotes, and finally is “conducting themselves in a manner likely to result in serious harm of self to others,” even if they pose no risk of harm to other people. So what that means is that, you know, simple employees, first responders have the power to transport homeless people to psychiatric hospitals involuntarily for psychiatric evaluation, whether or not they’re violent. Eric Adams also said that he would enhance training for NYPD officers and other responders who are identifying people who appear to be unable to meet their basic needs, and he would provide a hotline for police officers to speak with clinicians. Even if this were a good idea, which it’s absolutely not, it’s fictional, because there aren’t enough psychiatric beds available. Additionally, there are a lot of other issues with it. But one of the first things I’ll mention is that it would require changing the Medicaid reimbursement rates for psychiatric beds, which needs federal approval. So this policy has a lot of problems, and advocates are rightfully very upset about it, because it is really giving police more power to address issues where people are in crisis, and people need a therapeutic response.
Nima: You know, I think part of this, and why we’re excited to talk to you today Henna, is because part of what is so sinister about what we’ve been hearing about the so-called Mental Health Plan is the framing up of how it has been presented, let alone that it was announced on of all days Giving Tuesday, as if this is somehow a benevolent plan. But more than that, there’s this idea that automatically equates homelessness with crime, and homelessness with mental health issues. Can you talk about how basically this new policy, which really, I think, as we talked about earlier in the show, has so much to do with disappearing undesirables from the streets, from the view of folks who may have money to, you know, buy up nicer real estate, what is this idea of disappearing of part of our community, yet equating that with something that will have a positive effect on say crime rates or that this is somehow helping people rather than doing the same thing that say destroying homeless encampments was doing, which is just, you know, out of sight out of minding.
Henna Khan: Right. So it’s important to note that first Adams’ recent rhetoric is a shift from the way that he previously spoke about people who are struggling with mental illness. He previously has said that they are largely responsible for an increase in crime in the subway, even though most homeless people and people with mental health issues are not violent, and most crimes are not committed by people who are unsheltered or who have mental health issues, and this particular policy directive is interesting because it felt like the most egregious example among many of how healing center language is being co-opted to support harmful policy. Politicians all the time say, ‘We’re pushing for more incarceration or policing to help victims.’ But then they don’t actually introduce policies that help victims like investment policies or prevention policies. We’re in this moment where we’re coming out of a pandemic, people have suffered massively, they’re looking for healing. Wellness is a multi billion dollar industry, and people are having more open conversations about trauma and healing and therapy, and what Adams is doing is he’s employing terms designed to engender an empathetic response. So when he first came out during the press conference, he said there are people in danger and in need. He told a few humanizing stories of homeless people, he acknowledged the cycling in and out of hospitals and jails, talking about how they have slipped through the cracks, acknowledging the suffering that occurs and the need to change the culture, and he said “we have a moral obligation to help them.” He focused on treatment and recovery, needing deeper action, more intensive engagement, focusing on action, care and compassion. So you’re listening to this and you’re like, wow, okay, yes, you know, this is great. But what he’s actually doing is he’s really pushing the involuntary commitment of people in an already very broken system that cannot even handle the people that are coming in currently, and he is saying, ‘What we need to do is we need to actually allow for police and other first responders to make this determination of this person not being able to meet their basic needs so now they need to be committed and we shouldn’t release them.’ The language makes us think that the mayor is invested in truly helping our most vulnerable New Yorkers in a meaningful and effective way, and yet, he’s not actually responding to the actual needs of homeless and unhoused people, or those suffering from mental health conditions. Instead, he’s advocating for a violent and coercive policy that’s very vague and has great potential for abuse.
Adam: Yeah, so let’s get down to brass tacks because I think some people may be confused about what exactly a lot of this entails. Now, I want to sort of be generous and start from the premise that a lot of people have substance abuse issues, which can compound pre existing or create in some ways mental health issues that do manifest as what we would perceive as either being violent or threatening. I think it would be disingenuous to say that people haven’t all experienced that, right? I got off the plane at JFK to visit, I used to live in New York, to visit some friends earlier this summer, and literally, I walked in, I was waiting for the subway and I was accosted by a homeless person. Like that happens. Somebody visibly homeless. That happens. Everyone knows that happens. Anyone who’s dealt with anyone with an acute substance abuse issue that has manifested as what we would call paranoia can exhibit what we would call erratic or unpredictable behavior, although I think it’s not as violent as oftentimes people think it is. But it has the perception of that. That’s the reality that people see whether or not it’s gotten worse, we can debate, but that is something that a lot of people see in cities, and their reaction to that they’re human reaction, which is, I think, where we come in, and we sort of disagree with the solution, right? Even if you sort of accept the premise that this is increasing, and is creating violence or trauma for the quote-unquote “victims,” you can look at that and say, okay, there’s two ways of handling this. There’s two ways of responding on a fundamental level, which is seeing this happen and saying, why is this person not in jail? Or seeing this person and saying, holy shit, what has society done to fail this person? And it seems like the easy, cheap, obvious demagogic solution is to say if there’s this person exhibiting some kind of mental health issue that’s manifested as violence or making me uncomfortable or harassing me, sexually harassing me whatever it is, that this is a moral failing on the part of an individual requiring a carceral response versus what are the systems in place, which I think Wren Collective and people you work with, would obviously agree, has just colossally failed people, and when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail, right? And so in our society to show you take something seriously, you have to turn it into a crime, you have to involve the police. That’s sort of how you put on your serious face to say you take it seriously. The only grammar for empathy we have in our society is incarceration, and what I see here is this is just another sort of form of that where it says, okay, clearly, something’s not working in a lot of urban areas, housing is extremely expensive, the social safety net is failing, there’s not enough free public housing, there’s not even enough affordable housing, forget free, there is not enough mental health support, there’s not a social safety net that is remotely catching the people in our society that are at the bottom rung, and so that’s all too messy and expensive, and difficult and requires high taxes and tough trade offs. So we’re just going to sort of do what we’ve always done, which is just put surplus populations behind bars and rotate them through behind bars, and that’s really, I think, what I find, and what I think y’all find so cynical about this whole thing, is it’s sort of taking a real social problem, real social ill and doing what we always do, which is default to cops and cages, and I want to comment if you can on a op-ed, written by Representative Ron Kim, assembly person and a representative in New York state legislator who wrote this. You know, he has a sort of reputation as being progressive, he took on Cuomo, and he sort of got behind this and supported this, and seems to be like their kind of progressive face to this program, and he came out and said, “This is not police led.” There’s kind of two sides to the liberal state, right? There’s the carceral state that we all progressives hate but then there’s the welfare state we think is good, and as long as we sort of put the progressive state runs blocking for the running back, that is the carceral state, they can kind of get away with anything. And he said, ‘Oh, the police are trained.’ So I want to sort of talk about how this kind of concern with downplaying the role of police, is that reality? Because from what I’ve read is that when the rubber hits the road, this is just police, but police bracketed by two guys with clipboards and polo shirts. Can we talk about the extent to which this is police led? Is Kim’s statement, “This is not police led” true? And secondarily, he mentioned, ‘Oh, no, no, these aren’t normal police, they’re going to be trained,’ which if anyone knows anything about police training, knows that’s like a total joke of a statement, because they’re just trained by other police, and it’s like a week program. Can we talk about what that training supposedly looks like and to what extent it is police led?
Henna Khan: Yeah, that’s a great question. I mean, at this point, it’s still unclear, and the NYPD themselves has stated that they’re in the process of aligning their policy guidance and training in conformance with the mayor’s directive. So I think that this directive, it hasn’t really been thought out, and right now, the training that exists is Crisis Intervention Team training, which was paused during the pandemic, and to date, I believe less than half of New York city officers have gone through the four day training, which is clearly not enough.
Adam: Four day training?
Henna Khan: It’s a four day training.
Adam: So that’s basically not training.
Henna Khan: Exactly.
Adam: I mean, not that it would matter anyway, really, because again, there’s the guy with the Punisher tattoo, and the barbed wire, you know, who runs the Blue Lives Matter Facebook group, I don’t think like a week of training is going to turn him into a bleeding heart humanitarian. Call me cynical.
Henna Khan: Right, and it’ll take months to properly train officers, and as you all know, the NYPD has already been criticized for not being able to ramp up their training for different programs, particularly the Crisis Intervention Team trainings, and, you know, it also just, you know, you wonder police are trained to look for crime, police are armed, they are trained to use force, they are trained to ensure compliance, and they are grossly unprepared to deal with people who are struggling in severe mental health crisis, and the data shows that police contact actually escalates issues where someone is experiencing a crisis, just their presence escalates a situation, because they are uniformed, they are armed, it’s a hostile situation. So I’m not very hopeful that even with the training this is going to be helpful to people who need help.
Nima: I mean, one of the things that I’m struck by here is the kind of criminalization of just not having anywhere to go or even sometimes more specifically, choosing not to go to say a shelter, which we now know, our shelters are incredibly dangerous, a lot of unhoused people choose not to do that, and I think forced hospitalization is kind of a similar thing. I mean, homeless people are far more often victims of crime than perpetrators of crime, and yet, in not only, you know, official statements, but certainly media surrounding crime reporting, surrounding the so-called surge in crime, skyrocketing crime rates, which, you know, incidentally, I should point out, that so much of this rampant mental health issues and homelessness issues that are often talked about when it comes to New York City are seen on the New York City subways, and yet, ridership has gone up on subways, and I should also note that the odds of being the victim of a crime while riding on either a bus in the city or subway, this year so far, the data says the odds are 1.62 out of 1 million. And so I guess my question is, how much do you think the perception of danger, perception of threat is then used to sell policies like this? How does the media kind of tell those stories, make that even more embedded in our public perception, and then transfer this kind of crime story into, as you said this, like laundering of bad policy through language using healing and trauma, health language, to make it somehow more palatable?
Henna Khan: Yeah. I mean, I think it has a great effect on people really accepting this, you know, even with Representative Ron Kim. I think people want solutions. I don’t think that they necessarily have the imagination to figure out what that actually looks like, and that’s why the media is so important amongst the criminal justice reform movement, and, you know, mental health advocates, and public health approaches, there are solutions that work, it’s just that those solutions don’t get the attention that’s needed, and the media has really fueled a lot of the fear around crime, and when you do see someone on the subway who’s having a hard time or you experience something, then of course, you’re going to have that fear, and it’s real, and we do need solutions. But when we center policies that rely on police, and our traditional tough on crime policies that don’t really work, we have a problem, you know, and we’re not going to fix it by going back to the same thing that we’ve always done.
Adam: Yeah, so I want to talk a little bit about that, because we spent the top of the show talking about that there’s a long history of kind of liberal packaging of the same old carceral bullshit, because it’s all about the market you’re kind of playing to. Again, if this is largely conservative or Republican, they don’t really run through the motions to kind of do the beating heart humanitarian stuff, maybe a little bit, right? I mean, you know, here and there, you can sort of see it, but there isn’t a need to sort of package this is something new and different. I think that’s what made Representative Kim’s op-ed so, I don’t want to say amusing to me, but I’ve seen every five years, they’re like, ‘Oh, this police department is different,’ and it’s like, how? It’s the same organization as it was before. ‘This time is different,’ is sort of the standard liberal line, right? ‘This war is different.’ ‘This police force is different.’ ‘It’s not like the other bad things in the past.’ And of course, you know, Eric Garner was, that was what, seven, eight years ago? If you can, I want to do a little service journalism here. For the discerning and skeptical listener what are some of the red flags you look for when people do these policy announcements? Aside from the fact that Eric Adams is just overtly the most pro cop mayor, well, they’re all pro cop mayors, but even more so.
Nima: He’s really pro cop.
Adam: Right. Sort of cop-y mc-real estate. I mean, he’s courted and sought out the police union. He raised more money from real estate than anyone. And of course, the police are just an arm of real estate. So he’s very much pro cop.
Nima: Yeah, was literally a police captain.
Adam: Well, yeah, but he claims he was doing a Serpico routine, but I think that’s a little dubious, and aside from that kind of warranted skepticism of who’s actually making the policy, what are some of the, for someone who’s maybe in Portland or San Francisco or LA or, you know, Miami, or in these kind of liberal cities that are pushing more carceral policies, I know in Miami there was a vote in City Council to actually build basically an island of homeless people, and they made that seem like it was some kind of retreat, Club Med for homeless people. What would you say are some of the red flags to look for? Is it simply a matter of wow, is this going to be run by the police? Or is this like a legitimate health policy? You know, the fact that Adams was bracketed by ten police officers when he announced the plan didn’t really, wasn’t very reassuring, but can you sort of tell the listener what those red flags are, and what really, if you were the mayor tomorrow, what would your policy look like, aside from obviously, more robust social solutions?
Henna Khan: Right. I mean, there are several things that we look at when we’re trying to figure out if a policy is good or bad, and the first thing we ask is, is it net widening or net narrowing? And does it actually solve anything or is it skirting around the problem with feel good words? So for example, with probation reform, we need it. But we wouldn’t support a policy that makes probation go from five years for misdemeanors to three years. Yes, it’s not net widening, but it’s not something to be celebrated. So we want to make sure that it’s actually having an impact. You look at the stated objective of a policy, and you look at whether or not it sets out to meaningfully accomplish that goal, and one of the main questions we ask is who is being impacted? Another question is, is the policy so vague that you could drive a truck through it? With Adam’s proposal, it’s very vague, it leaves a lot of discretion to the responder to determine whether someone appears to be mentally ill. Does it appear that they can’t meet their basic living needs? How they’re conducting themselves. Very subjective terms, and one of the red flags is, well, one thing we ask is whether the policy is backed by evidence. So what does the data say about the efficacy of a policy? Has it actually been proven to help? Does it actually get at the problem that it’s trying to solve? So with Adams’ directive, there are studies on forced commitment, and they have found that the process wasn’t more effective than voluntary care. So his policy is not backed by evidence, and we also look at the collateral consequences of the policy. We want to know what the harms are, can it potentially create more harm or trauma or distrust of the system? I think that’s one of the things that we really need to talk about is that people who are involuntarily committed are more likely to harm themselves, including attempted suicide, and they’re less likely to trust institutions and seek help when they need it in the future. So that’s one of the really big ones that this policy needs to address because if we’re having police at the forefront or first responders involuntarily committing people, what’s going to happen when they are ultimately released? Are they actually going to want to get the help that they need or are they just going to say, ‘I don’t trust the system, I’m going to stay out on the street, I don’t need help because I was so harmed by what happened to me.’
Adam: Yeah, because I think that’s where there’s some confusion. I think there’s the average person says, ‘Okay, the police are some mysterious force just takes this person out of the way,’ which of course is where the which is the Alpha and Omega of this whole policy which is just get it out of the way, just like the sort of “sweeps,” quote-unquote, where three days later there’s another camp set up because the same people just came back because there’s no shelters, right? It’s but it’s sort of you need to look busy, right?
Nima: Except all their stuff was destroyed, including oftentimes their ID that makes it even harder for them to get public services.
Adam: And God forbid they had drugs on them then they’re in jail, right? But there’s this capital ‘D’ capital ‘S’ Do Something ism, and so much of our politics is about Doing Something, and rather the appearance of Doing Something, right? Whether or not you do something is academic, and I think that when people see, ‘Okay, well, Eric Adams is doing something,’ right? He’s standing up on a podium, and there’s a bunch of people, there’s a bunch of logos, I think one of them’s a fire department, the other one’s health services, sort of seems important, right? You need to look like you’re kicking ass and taking names, right? New sheriff in town, right? And they think that, ‘Okay, we take this person to a mental health facility,’ and that’s kind of where the object permanence ends for the average person, they sort of say, ‘Okay, they’re going to this mysterious place, maybe I guess it’s like a Betty Ford Clinic.’ Can you sort of pick up there and explain why that reasoning is faulty, you touched on it a second ago, but I want to kind of expand on, there’s no real strategy to actually give people substantive care, because, as we talked about a lot on this episode, and other episodes, without permanent stable housing, mental health care and drug treatment care, have a very, very, very, very high failure rate. So either way we still circle back to the issue of housing. So can you sort of comment on this mysterious place that people go and explain what happens when they disappear from people’s eyesight?
Henna Khan: Right, so, you know, these are all Band Aid solutions that are very short term solutions that I wouldn’t even call solutions because they don’t work. So we already have a shortage of hospital beds in New York City, and Adams wants more people to be picked up and held in hospitals. Currently, the law is that you can only hold people for 72 hours, and then they have to be released, he wants to extend that time. But you can’t keep people in hospitals indefinitely. It also just doesn’t work at treating the actual problem, and so eventually they have to be released. We have a massive shortage of quality outpatient care, we don’t have supportive housing, and it’s interesting because people think that entering the system through a psychiatric facility is the way to go through this process of getting supportive housing. But it actually is much more stabilizing for someone who has mental illness to get housing first, as you were saying it’s deeply stabilizing, and it shouldn’t be that hard for us to understand that in order to feel safe, first you need to have a place to lay your head that feels safe, and you know, a lot of people say, ‘Well, there are shelters that exist, why don’t they just go into the shelters?’ Shelters are extremely violent, they’re extremely unsafe, people are regularly assaulted there, the conditions are really bad, they’re dirty, they’re awful, and people would rather put themselves at risk of all kinds of things happening to them sleeping on the subway, sleeping on the street than be in shelters. So what we need to do is invest in adequate housing. And so in Milwaukee, they implemented Housing First to reduce reentry into jail, they found that after a year of service delivery, municipal violations decreased by 82 percent, and the number of people experiencing homelessness decreased significantly as well. So there are solutions that work, and housing, surprisingly, for some people, is actually cheaper than a lot of these emergency responses. We’ve spent billions of dollars on emergency responses similar to Adams’ plan and it hasn’t helped. So housing is actually possible, and it works. I was a public defender during the pandemic, and at the very beginning of the pandemic, when people were being released from jail, they were being given hotel rooms by the city during the stay at home order, and during that time, we saw a sharp decrease in arrests. That can be attributed to a number of different things, but anecdotally, I know that many of my clients really benefited from having a room of their own with a bathroom of their own, they were able to get the treatment they needed, they were able to get the support that they needed, clinicians were able to reach them easily. So when we actually give people a stable place to live, we see that they’re actually able to access the necessary supports that are going to help them.
Adam: Yeah, and of course, as we mentioned the top of show, of course, if you give people free housing during which we did to some extent with UI and stimulus during COVID, you create upward pressure on wages and give labor power too much power, because precarity is what drives low wages. So that’s obviously not one of the solutions we can have. So therefore you have to have cops in cages.
Nima: Yeah, I think this gets to what you were saying about, you know, where your red flags kind of come in, how to assess what we’re hearing in terms of these policies and how all too often, not only are, say root causes of these issues obscured, but oftentimes they’re inverted, right? You know, I mean, as you were just saying Henna, the idea that homelessness or mental illness is seen as a moral failing that one needs to make it through in some kind of way, that obviously will include some sort of touched of the carceral system, make it through to a deservingness to then get, you know, assisted living or, you know, affordable housing as opposed to the inverse of that, right, which you’re saying that no, the root causes so often are these fundamental aspects of health and safety and security against this idea of precarity and danger, the idea that if you have a place to live, so much can and should and will follow from that. How does the idea of doing that kind of sleight of hand and version of root causes, right, that you need the hospitalization, you need the incarceration before you can get to the deservingness of a home or of certain services, how does that inversion just kind of, you know, allow for more carceral solutions where there always seems to be plenty of budget, yet, addressing the root causes is never really an option?
Henna Khan: Right. Well, I mean, there are distractions, they make people think that the solutions are more institutionalization, more police intervention, because they’re presented as the solution. So that’s why we continue to rely on law enforcement when we think about public safety, because we’re always focusing on emergency responses, while not addressing the underlying problem. But at the same time, we know what works, and that’s a public health approach that deals with the problem holistically. You know, we’ve talked about decent quality housing, we’ve talked about stabilizing people with mental health conditions, helping them maintain their social support systems. There were some housing researchers in L.A., and they found that while poverty and an inability to pay for housing are precipitating causes for entering homelessness, over time, social disconnection and legal, medical and behavioral health problems emerge as barriers to escaping homelessness. So we really need to think about all of the consequences of institutionalizing people and taking them away from their support systems. We need to think about what is happening when we’re saying, we need to put people in a psychiatric ward indefinitely, and then release them back into the community, and we need to think about the harms that flow from that, and the costs that flow from that as well. You know, and I’ve said this before, but providing supportive and affordable housing is much cheaper than relying on institutionalization of people, or relying on emergency shelters, we need to focus on funding programs that are less intrusive. So for example, homeless drop in centers, mental health urgent care centers, more outreach workers who are trained mental health professionals that can provide therapeutic responses, rather than a law and order response that is coercive in nature. The plan that Adams is putting forth isn’t going to work. Hospitals are at capacity, people are going to be sent back into the streets, and without investing in things that actually work, that are proven to work, that are backed by evidence, we’re not going to see a solution. So while his plan sounds great to someone who doesn’t really know that much about these issues, it once again, is a band aid approach, and one of the things that we don’t really think about is, is there an infrastructure to support the policies that we’re putting forward? So can they actually be carried out? This policy, really untenable. The city mental health providers are underfunded and understaffed. There’s a chronic bed shortage. The current system is already so stressed that it can’t provide adequate care for people, and at this point, we don’t even know what will happen upon discharge. So there are so many unknowns with what he’s saying, and when we do have policy directives, we need to really see where is the funding going, where’s the money going? Budgets reveal values, and Eric Adams, he’s saying that he cares for people who are struggling with mental health issues, but the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene saw a budget reduction of 29 percent, the Department of Homeless Services saw a 15 percent reduction from previous years in this year’s budget. So if you truly wanted to provide compassionate, comprehensive care for New Yorkers experiencing mental illness or homeless New Yorkers, his budget would reflect that, and, you know, I think one of the last things was does this seem legal? His policy violate civil rights. It relies on an expanded interpretation of New York’s mental health laws, and he is likely to face lawsuits if this plan moves forward.
Adam: To the extent that one actually cares about the law this is basically just kind of kidnapping people based on ad hoc assumptions of cops from Long Island.
Nima: Yeah, it’s always interesting how law and order policies really never really care much about the law. Henna, this has been so great. Thank you so much for talking this through with us. We’ve been speaking with Henna Khan, criminal defense attorney, litigator and now an advisor at The Wren Collective. She previously served as a staff attorney for the Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem. Henna, again, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.
Henna Khan: Thank you.
Adam: Yeah, I think this whole idea that you’re going to somehow treat mental illness by locking people in the hospital for a couple days, I do think you can treat like acute episodes, like if someone is having a manic episode or is delusional or paranoid, and they are violent, sure, and that the problem is I think they’ve taken that like, basic intuitive idea.
Nima: This policy is not bad because we’re anti hospital or anti mental health services.
Adam: Oh, no, of course. But I think they’ve taken the sort of basic idea that like, yeah, if someone’s like, yelling at people and stabbing you, yeah, clearly, they need some kind of medical intervention.
Adam: Obviously. And they’ve expanded that to like, ‘Oh, if you’re homeless, by definition, you’re crazy.’
Adam: And it’s not quite that, but it’s sort of like that. And it’s such a basic inversion of how we should be viewing this issue. Again, it’s sort of hip to say, for liberals to say, addiction is a disease or mental health issue is a disease, it’s not a moral failing. But if somebody has cancer, let’s say I have pancreatic cancer, what do you think my survival rate is if I’m living on the streets versus having a safe and secure home if I have to treat cancer? Just run the numbers, what do you think, how much do you think that increases the likelihood of you surviving that particular disease? And it’s the same thing with any kind of mental health issue, or any kind of substance issue, where, by definition, if you have a secure, private, stable, comfortable home, you’re far more likely to quote-unquote “get better,” to improve to the extent that’s possible, and if you don’t improve, what’s the great tragedy we’ve accomplished as a society? Oh, no, you’ve given someone a hot meal and a warm place to stay for something that they didn’t earn. But as we talked about earlier, of course, you know, god bless our guest, she kept saying it’s, you know, it’s cheaper to actually house people, and again, not to be the guy in the Onion article with the bong saying what the real criminals, but it’s not cheaper in the long term, and the capital class knows that. Because if you provide people free housing without conditions or without being economically precarious, right, if you provide that floor, that social safety net floor, not to mix metaphors here, then you disincentivize low wage workers to work for shitty wages, and we saw little mini versions of this during COVID. It’s one of the reasons labor power got so much stronger, and wages shot up, because there was some social safety net, and they can’t permit that.
Nima: There was a tiny bit less precarity during a massive economic and health crisis.
Adam: Right, and so the one actual thing that actually works to prevent the sort of wacky, homeless crazy guy on the subway going after you, right, the sort of thing everybody’s talking about, everybody wants this trope, we’ve taken that off the table as an option as a society, because it would require a fundamental rearrangement of workers and capital. And that is why when people say, well, I you know, this professor from University of Pennsylvania, this professor from University of New Mexico, and this that, they all came up with all this data, we’ve studied this to death that shows providing people income and stable housing is the most profoundly elegant way of reducing, not eliminating, but reducing crime, reducing violent interactions with people who with mental health issues or other substance issues, whatever that is, both against them and against others, the most efficient way of doing that is to provide people with income and housing for free, it’s actually much much cheaper than putting people in jail or forcing them into hospitals. But that is looking at the wrong rubric, and again, hate to be the guy, but there’s because they cannot permit that the —
Nima: The lack of precarity winds up being more dangerous —
Adam: Correct, correct.
Nima: — to those in power.
Adam: Correct. And that’s the fundamental problem is that the solution that actually works, which is a robust, aggressive $100, $200 billion housing program that actually houses people and provides them with income is simply not an option because it’ll result in too much labor power and then the capital will cause inflation to punish the liberal class for providing too much to people.
Nima: Well, Merry Christmas, everyone. That will do it for this episode and this calendar year of Citations Needed. Thank you all so much for listening to us throughout 2022. We cannot thank you enough. We are in the middle of our sixth season. We will be back in January. We’re going to take a little break and then we will be back in the new year with brand new episodes of Citations Needed. But until then, we cannot thank you enough for listening to the show and want to wish you all, of course, very happy holidays.
Adam: Yes, Happy Hanukkah, Merry Christmas, whichever other you celebrate, I don’t want to be too sectarian here and go down the rabbit hole. Again, we’re very grateful for your support, and we don’t want to be totally dreary here, and so in the spirit of the holidays, we thought we would leave you with some organizations that are doing non-carceral homeless work. We obviously can’t name all the ones that are great throughout the entire US or world, but we’re going to list them here in the cities that are close to us, which in this case is New York and Chicago, and if you can support them this holiday season.
Nima: Or find your own local organization. Support those too.
Adam: Or find your own local organization that doesn’t suck, if you have one in your local community you think does good work, abolitionist work, that does direct work that is not one of these Christian bootstrap bullshit organizations. Please leave them in the comment section or on social media for people to give, because we want to try to leave you with some idea that we can push back against these forces. I know the show seems to be kind of bleak, but especially in the holiday season, we want you to know that there are things we can do and people are doing all over the country to push back against these forces and to try to provide a humanizing alternative to the cops and cages approach.
Nima: Yes, we know that we talk about tough stuff on Citations Needed a lot, there is not often a lot of hope and cheer but, you know, we do want to leave you as the kind of Reformed Scrooge at the end of this episode and at the end of this year with the names of some really good organizations doing vital work that Citations Needed is giving to this month as well. — In Chicago, there’s the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, which you can find at chicagohomeless.org and here in New York, there’s the group VOCAL-NY, which you can find at vocal-ny.org and Neighbors Together at neighborstogether.org. There are also, of course, many mutual aid organizations doing phenomenal work — mutualaid.nyc — and you can also look up local groups where you are and give there, of course.
So give to those or others if you can, share organizations that you think are great with other listeners, with your friends and family, let’s make sure that as many people can have the best holidays that they possibly can. But that will do it for this episode and for 2022 of Citations Needed. Thank you all again for listening. Of course, you can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, and become a supporter of our show through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast. All your support through Patreon is so incredibly appreciated as we really are 100 percent listener funded. And as always a very special holiday shout out goes to our critic level supporters on Patreon. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.
Nima: Thank you for listening again to Citations Needed and happy holidays. Our senior producer is Florence Barrau-Adams. Producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. We’ll catch you next year.
This Citations Needed episode was released on Wednesday, December 21, 2022.
Transcription by Morgan McAslan.