On Friday, Feb. 12, homeless man Rigoberto Lopez boarded the Manhattan-bound A train. Over the next 14 hours, two homeless people were found murdered in their sleep, and another two were severely injured from multiple stab wounds. Quickly nicknamed “The A-Train Ripper,” Lopez also managed to leave the entire city terrified — a feat I didn’t think possible given how completely numb we’ve become to the daily reports of daylight shootings, slashings, and straphangers being pushed onto subway lines.
Previously arrested four times, including for the assault of his own father, Lopez also has a history of mental illness, and his last known residence was a motel shelter in Brooklyn. Our city has been paying top dollar to house our homeless population in hotels around the city, a decision that has led to chaos.
With $3.2 billion of New York City tax dollars spent on homelessness in 2019, one would assume our City Council would have the situation well under control. But instead, the homeless problem has soared to new heights and is now a visible and dangerous problem in every neighborhood and subway line.
You might assume New York’s homeless problem was worse in the 1980s. It wasn’t. The average number of people sleeping in shelters per year throughout that decade was actually 23,295. Our current surge in homelessness seems to have started in 2006, and steadily climbed to the 122,926 people who slept in NYC’s homeless shelters in 2020. No matter how many billions of dollars we throw at this problem, the problem just gets worse.
Had we decided to write checks and just hand that $3.2 billion over to the homeless population, we could have given every man, woman, and child exactly $26,031.92. Think about that. That amount could cover a person’s first and last month’s rent, security deposit, utilities and furniture. If this money were given to a family of three, they would be starting their new life with a $78,095 nest egg, an amount many New Yorkers have never even held in a personal savings account.
So what are we doing wrong?
Our leaders insist the main reason for homelessness is a lack of affordable housing. So the city spends wildly on housing our homeless, paying $237 per person per day to put them up at the Lucerne hotel, to cite one example. If you were to go on Hotels.com and search for hotel rooms in Manhattan, the average going rate is currently $90 per day. Since 2017, the city has also shelled out $274 million to the Bronx Parent Housing Network, one of the city’s largest operators of homeless shelters, formerly run by Victor Rivera. It recently came to light that 10 women, including homeless women staying in his shelters, have accused Rivera of sexual assault and harassment, and two were paid settlements to keep quiet.
And yet, our elected leaders insist on seeing everything through the lens of compassion and victimhood, shelling out for beds in hotels, when we need to be focused on the root of this problem.
There are many reasons why a person ends up homeless, and it is often a combination of factors. Do women end up homeless after suffering from domestic abuse? Of course they do. Are there homeless families with young children who have sadly ended up in our shelter system from a mix of bad luck, a lack of affordable housing, and no fault of their own? Yes, without question.
But, according to Samhsa.gov, the majority of homeless people in the United States — over 60 percent — suffer from lifelong mental-health issues, and over 80 percent suffer from lifelong drug and alcohol addiction.
If we are going to make any headway on this issue, we have to acknowledge the facts: Mental illness and addiction are preventing most of our homeless population from being able to properly take care of themselves and function in a civilized society. It is time to acknowledge that the activists are not right, and the main cause of homelessness is not a lack of affordable housing.
Better services that target mental illness and addiction should be paramount. The city’s $1 billion mental-health program ThriveNYC has failed because it shunned the mentally ill while focusing on “Improving Mental Wellness.” It’s essentially a hotline for people having a bad day, as opposed to addressing serious mental illness with trained professionals, clubhouse programs and court-mandated treatments.
It’s a shame we sink so much money into a program that only scratches the surface of mental illness when Kendra’s Law — which mandates outpatient treatment for those deemed a danger to society — has been proven to reduce suicides, arrests, homelessness and incarceration.
But, because the city has shied away from enforcing this law, Rigoberto Lopez — and others like him — aren’t just slipping through the cracks of the system. There’s simply no system in place to prevent tragedies like the one he caused.
“Unfortunately state policy is not ‘treatment before tragedy,’ ” said Nicole Palame, a former mental-health professional turned political organizer with InformNYC.org. “Tragedy is actually a prerequisite for treatment in New York. We need real legislation focused on real results.”
In the meantime, we can no longer sacrifice our own public safety in the name of political correctness. If our politicians keep offering us more of the same solutions that have increased our homeless population, then we should all expect their numbers to grow — and our city to slip further into the abyss.
Jason Curtis Anderson is a New Yorker. His “Letter to the Mayor” went viral earlier this year.