‘Homelessness Solutions,’ Mental Health Care in Council Budget Process

A push for accountable spending, in response to the mayor’s FY 2023 preliminary budget

| 07 Apr 2022 | 02:56

Budgeting the city’s spending is no small task — and it’s not one left solely to the mayor’s discretion, either. That’s why, on Friday, April 1, the City Council came forward with a formal response to Mayor Eric Adams’ fiscal year 2023 preliminary budget.

“We’re on the ground and we see what some of the challenges are” that New Yorkers face daily, Upper West Side Council Member Gale Brewer told Our Town.

It’s not a novel process; Each year, the city council reviews the mayor’s budgeting plans in a multi-step dance that concludes by July 1 with the adopted budget — agreed upon by both the mayor and the city council. The intent, according to Council Member Justin Brannan, chair of the Committee on Finance, is for the budget to act as a “moral manifest,” a document that puts community needs at the forefront.

This year’s initial round of suggestions from the City Council, led by Speaker Adrienne Adams, was plentiful, with proposed allocations of funding pooling around affordable housing and “solutions” for aiding the city’s homeless population; mental health care; and sanitation.

Homelessness Resources

Homelessness has become an issue of growing concern in recent months, with activists calling for alternatives to congregate shelters in the wake of a string of shootings targeting homeless men, not long after Adams launched efforts to crack down on those living in the city’s subway system.

The mayor’s “Subway Safety Plan” called for 140 new “Safe Haven” beds, a low-barrier, private living option overseen by the Department of Homeless Services (DHS), in addition to 350 new “Stabilization Beds” of a similar nature. It’s far too few, according to the city council, which is now urging Adams to include $114 million in funding for over 2,300 such beds to accommodate the roughly equivalent number of unsheltered homeless people in the city as of last year. “We’ve got to do more Safe Havens ... because people are not going to go to [a] congregate shelter,” Brewer said.

The council’s response also outlines the restoration of $49.4 million in funding to the DHS to “convert” hotels previously rejigged to accommodate homeless people in the city during the pandemic into affordable housing for homeless families. “We as a city are facing a very critical moment in helping those experiencing homelessness,” said Deputy Speaker Diana Ayala, chair of the Committee on General Welfare, in a statement.

(Mental) Health Care

Mental health care — and health care more generally — emerged as another focus in the council’s response to Adams’ preliminary budget. Following high-profile tragedies like the killing of New Yorker Michelle Go by a homeless man suffering from mental illness, the council is calling on Adams to maintain (or even up) his financial support of Street Health Outreach and Wellness (SHOW) services, which include mental and physical health outreach initiatives.

The council’s budget response also includes a push for $61 million in funding for “B-HEARD,” a program that “dispatches mental health specialists and paramedics for certain mental health-related emergency calls” — allowing for expansion into up to five new precincts. The mayor’s preliminary budget did not allocate any funds for this program, the council stated. “Mental health services have been cut year after year,” Council Member Erik Bottcher told Our Town in a statement, “and we’re now seeing the heartbreaking results of that tragic failure on our streets.”

The ebb and flow of COVID-19 has made mental health care in the city all the more pertinent — as evidenced by the council’s demand for $3 million to benefit mental health services in 33 communities “hardest hit” by the pandemic. The council’s response also calls for over $14 million to be set aside to hire social workers across 100 schools.

“You have got to have services in these schools,” Brewer said, noting that of the schools she contacted during the pandemic, some reported not having a single social worker on site.

Keeping Up Appearances

Another way to support the city’s people, the council’s response suggests, may come in the form of reviving the city’s infrastructure — namely, its parks. “As this pandemic has shown, our parks and playgrounds are essential,” said Council Member Shekar Krishnan, chair of the Committee on Parks and Recreation, in a statement. “They are connected to public health, mental health and our well-being.” The council would like to see $52 million go toward park maintenance.

And then there’s the less-than-scenic task of keeping the streets clean. Rather than the proposed Department of Sanitation cuts totaling more that $47 million, the city council has suggested a restoration of funds to support staffing for street sweeping, waste collection and more. It’s not the most glamorous undertaking, but it’s certainly among the most pressing. “New York will not recover,” Bottcher said, “if there are piles of trash on street corners.”

“We’re on the ground and we see what some of the challenges are.” Council Member Gale Brewer