The tables and chairs on the Times Square piazza were all filled, except for a grouping of about a half-dozen. It was before this invisible audience of empty seats that the man was screaming a profanity-laced political diatribe. Now and then, he slammed his fist down on a tabletop to emphasize his mysterious point; cops stood and watched. Tourists gave uneasy glances.
There have always been homeless people in New York City. But over the past few years, especially in the wake of the pandemic lockdowns, something has changed. The city is no longer dealing primarily with souls who fell on hard financial times and sit behind cardboard signs appealing for help. Instead, the streets are awash in aggressive, angry, addicted and too often violent members of society who threaten the social fabric of America’s largest city.
Some lie half-naked, sprawled on sidewalk concrete, some appear in small gaggles, pooling meager funds for illicit purchases. Others prowl the streets yelling incoherently like the Times Square preacher. One man in a long flowing dress danced seductively across the traffic of taxicab- strewn Eighth Avenue, landing at a light pole on which to perform a kind of striptease.
These days, the city’s response to all of this seems to be to do nothing.
Last week, I took a walk through what, in former days, was the busiest street in America. From Times Square, past Herald Square and Penn Station, down through Bryant Park and Union Square, Broadway should be packed with office workers, tourists, characters, hustlers, energy.
Instead, across from the shopping mecca of Macy’s, a few guys openly sell weed. They have a little scale and parcel out tiny bags affordable to those with no place to go. Addicts openly shoot up on side streets.
It is only when you really look for it that the full magnitude, the sheer numbers of the problem of the homeless and mentally ill, become apparent. On every single side street, especially those with awnings of scaffolding, they are there. They are there dozing in filthy clothes or staring in a drug-addled dream state. The street has become their bedroom, bathroom and kitchen.
And almost everywhere, men — almost always men — muttering to themselves, screaming at phantoms, veering into the paths of others on the sidewalk. No one — not the cops, not any outreach group — was there to help them. And if they were, would the city allow them to force them to go to a shelter or a hospital, get cleaned up, get diagnosed?
Disorder in our streets was an issue in this year’s mayor’s race. Back in June, then-candidate Andrew Yang took heat from progressives for saying in a debate that, “yes, mentally ill people have rights, but you know who else have rights? We do.” He went on to say, “We have the right to walk the street and not fear for our safety because a mentally ill person is going to lash out at us.”
That this was a controversial comment is itself a sign of our wearying times.
Late last month, GOP candidate Curtis Sliwa had a viral video moment when his rally at Penn Station was interrupted by a homeless man.
The Guardian Angel waved off police and spoke to the man. The man’s countenance changed from anger to weeping when Sliwa treated him like a human being, asking if he is supposed to be on medication. The crying man told the crowd he did not want to be a burden to them. Sliwa assured him that he is not — that, in fact, he is our responsibility.
Fine words indeed, but how should we and our government be living up to that responsibility? City Councilman Joe Borelli (R-SI) says that we are conflating three distinct things when we confront the “homeless problem.” These are the financially homeless, the mentally ill and the addicted, each of which requires different solutions. These days, perhaps owing in part to the eviction moratorium, it is the latter two that perplex our efforts.
What is entirely clear is that the permissive approach of simply ignoring these troubled souls is not good for the city, and is absolutely not good for them.
At best, the situation on our streets is uneasy and menacing, unwelcome to the residents who live here or the visitors who are key to our city’s financial health.
But far too many times, the situation has turned violent. This summer, a woman was randomly beaten with a belt outside NBC studios by a homeless man. That same week, a man was bludgeoned with a metal pipe in Times Square. Earlier this year, an Asian woman was accosted by a homeless man while carrying a sign on her way to protest against anti-Asian violence. The man stomped on the sign and then attacked her.
At the very least, we need greater engagement and outreach to help these mentally ill and addicted New Yorkers — and, perhaps, for those who do not choose help and treatment, it must be compelled.
It is not just the random acts of violence on our streets and in our subway stations, it is not just the dystopian vision of the half-dead lying about our byways, it is not just the jarring disruption of suddenly being screamed at. It is all of this. And it is not normal, it is not OK.
Just outside of Madison Square Garden, a young man who had been dangerously weaving his bike around sidewalk pedestrians paused. He began to shout. “I will go ice fishing if I want to go ice fishing. I will go to Antarctica. Motherf- -kers in Antarctica have different genetics, I know!” He went on like this. An absurd monologue entirely detached from reality, and yet, Antarctica? Ice fishing? Deep within his inchoate ramblings was a person with a soul and a history. Perhaps with some help, we would learn it.
New York City is failing that man, and all of the others. We are failing ourselves. Our leaders need to act boldly. This is no longer a problem that can be ignored; it is a daily toll paid by everyone.