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In one Brooklyn neighborhood, the worsening mental health crisis sparks growing alarm but few answers

The New York Daily News - 10/31/2022

Random attacks. Record homelessness numbers. A shortfall in services. The outward signs of a deepening mental health crisis are growing in New York City.

But few places have to live with it as closely as East New York.

The Brooklyn neighborhood, which leads the city in most serious categories of crime, faces high numbers of mental heath emergencies. The rate of adult psychiatric hospitalization in East New York is more than double the citywide rate, according to data from the Department of Health.

The response — from the community, local officials and advocates — underscores how thorny the issue is not only in East New York, but across the city.

While advocates and officials, often at odds, debate solutions and call for new funding, residents say the streets are becoming increasingly unsafe as they confront the daily reality of overlapping crises: mental health, homelessness and addiction.

Kids no longer can play in certain playgrounds. Seniors take Ubers instead of walking to avoid certain corners. Residents more frequently feel there are times when they have to cross the streets to avoid people who appear visibly troubled.

“They gotta take people off the streets, so they’re not in the park, on the sidewalk. Or like, take better care of the shelters,” said Kyle Theodore, 22, who grew up in East New York. “Or they could have a set of stricter rules that they follow.”

A spiraling problem

As the problem worsens, there is tension between local government officials and advocates, who kick blame to others as they struggle to find solutions.

Local government officials say an oversaturation of services in the area makes some of the problems inevitable. In the absence of viable permanent housing solutions, they point to the more than a dozen shelters, overrun public spaces and 911 mental health calls as examples of an inequitable response to the mental health crisis.

Charles Barron, the longtime City Council representative for District 42, which includes East New York, says the core of the problem is an oversaturation of homeless shelters that dump the city’s most vulnerable in a neighborhood already plagued by poverty. East New York is short on resources for its existing residents, let alone any more, he said.

“I’m not saying not in my backyard. I’m saying our backyards are full already,” Barron said. “And the other backyards are not carrying their fair share of homeless shelters.”

Melinda Perkins, the district manager of Community District 5, says a deluge of supportive housing units may be to blame.

“From the complaints we receive, it seems as if it may be an increase in that population, not only because of the supportive housing units, but also based on folks who may be coming into shelters and [the district],” Perkins said.

“ ... We have that population that has increased because of the size of the developments that have come into [the district]. And the fact that developers do get greater subsidies and greater development tax incentives for allowing that type of housing, those types of units to be a part of their project.”

Perkins says the problem has increased since the pandemic.

“We have an increase of complaints for certain acts that are happening throughout the district, that when you hear this type of incident, you tie it directly into some kind of mental challenge that may be going on with that person,” Perkins said.

“Something has to happen so that we’re not just spiraling,” she said.

More services needed

Advocates see the problem differently. They view mental illness as a citywide pandemic-worsened problem, not just one the city dumped on them. And they need more services, both in and out of the community, to fix it.

“We definitely need more supportive housing,” said Brian Moriarty, assistant vice president of behavioral health and senior housing programs for Volunteers of America-Greater New York.

Moriarty runs various programs in East New York, including East New York SRO, a supportive housing residence. He said the programming aims to establish some security for its residents.

“If we can achieve that stability, we can end their cycle of homelessness, and part of that is working on their mental health — getting them connected to outside resources, whether that be a medical provider, a mental health provider of substance use provider, or just connecting them to a jobs program,” Moriarty said.

Pascale Larosiliere, the program director at Good Shepherd Services, a youth development and family service agency said there aren’t enough services or funding.

“The support services that exist are really stretched thin,” Larosiliere said. “ ... Many of the mental health providers that exist in East New York, I think it would be beneficial if there were some opportunities for expansion so that they can cover more areas in East New York or so that they can either extend their hours or have teams actually going out into communities and canvassing and providing folks with support.”

“Here in our community, we’re always kind of talking about support services that are out there and this whole idea of nimbyism, like ‘Yes, homeless people, mental health, people need support, but not here, not my neighborhood.’ And I think New Yorkers really need to rethink this a little bit,” she said.

Dangerous streets

Regardless of the why, residents of East New York say they don’t like what they are increasingly seeing on the streets. They’re not sure if the root of the problem is mental illness, homelessness or addiction. At a ground level it’s often hard to tell where one issue ends and another begins.

Sharmaine, 30, works at a day care across the street from a playground where she said she often sees people urinating, exposing themselves, using hard drugs and muttering to themselves.

“It’s causing a problem where, when they come here, the kids cannot use the parks because of the homeless shelter. The people go to the parks because apparently when they let them out in the morning, they cannot come back until the late afternoon, which affects us because we can’t let the kids out to play in the playground. ... We try to keep them safe within these walls,” Sharmaine said.

Malik Smith, 20, grew up in East New York. He says the neighborhood has gotten worse over the past few years.

“This area got rundown and looks crazy now,” Smith said. “It don’t look the same as it used to look. That’s a fact.”

“I think that at least there’s a lot of homeless people, a lot of immigrants, a lot of people just walking around here, without work, they don’t know what to do, but it affects the community,” Teodoso Baez, 72, who lives in East New York and works at a deli in the neighborhood, said in Spanish. “It’s a confusing problem, not just on the local level, but worldwide.”

Larry Patterson, 40, said he sees a lot of poverty and homelessness on a daily basis. But he is sympathetic to what many are up against. He knows that with a quick change of circumstances, he could be in a similar position.

“If I lost my job and stopped paying my rent, how do I know I wouldn’t be in the same position? ... If I should be in a situation right now where I stopped work or I’m not able to provide for myself, there’s where I’m going to see myself homeless, depressed, stressed.”

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