In the wake of the Jordan Neely murder, mental illness and homelessness have once again come to the forefront. How do we handle it? How do we address it? What is our level of exposure to it and who should be answering those questions? 

We often think of public officials as people having experience in finance, business, and law. We do not think about how this person would handle a pandemic or a mental health crisis. Oddly enough, these issues have been proven to directly affect the aforementioned. COVID changed the way we do business; funding and lawyers can barely keep up with the new legislation that COVID has created. The same can be said for mental health, or at least it should be. Our hospitals and schools are full of people with this experience. Do we consult with them enough? Do public officials seek training in this area? 

Like it or not, mental illness is part of our everyday lives. We see people who may have mental illness asking for change, talking aimlessly to themselves, and sometimes showing signs of aggression. Most appear to be homeless. They are a part of our everyday walk, commute, or errands we  run. They are entrenched in the landscape of the city as much as newsstands and traffic lights. Sometimes we might give them some change, or we avoid them by walking around them, but no sooner do we walk by them that they are an afterthought. 

Some, like Jordan Neely, are talented. Maybe we tell ourselves they could be dangerous or aggressive. Perhaps they are reminders of our lack of humanity. Either way, they represent that part of our subconscious that suggests our society is flawed and we have a mental health crisis that always seems to be somebody else’s problem. At best, we go about our daily lives and think, “What can I do? I’m not qualified to address it” or “What are our politicians doing?”  

If the Jordan Neely tragedy proves anything, it’s that we have an indifferent and sometimes hostile attitude toward mentally ill people. Who are they to invade our space and force us to deal with them? 

According to the New York State Department of Health:

“Mental disorders continue to be common, widespread, and disabling. Every year, more than 1 in 5 New Yorkers has symptoms of a mental disorder. Moreover, in any year, 1 in 10 adults and children experience mental health challenges serious enough to affect functioning in work, family, and school life. The disease burden or total cost of mental illness exceeds that caused by all cancers.  Barriers to effective care—stigma and discrimination, symptoms that reduce the ability to recognize problems, insurance limits—add up. In our nation, people enter care on average nine years after problems first appear. Mental health problems are a leading health challenge for children; half of all lifetime cases of mental illness begin by age 14, while three-quarters begin by age 24. Mental disorders that appear early on, when left untreated, are associated with disability, school failure, teenage childbearing, unstable employment, marital instability, death by suicide, and violence.”   

Do we know how to address mental illness? Do school clinicians identify, diagnose, and treat children with mental health concerns? Do our police understand and have the training to address aggressive homeless people with mental health issues? If we look at these statistics, they suggest we are not close to understanding this serious issue. Is our apathy or indecisiveness exacerbating the problem? 

Everyone has a past. When we see homeless people suffering from mental health issues, we do not consider that they were someone’s promise, someone’s joy. This was not the plan their parents had for them. As fellow citizens, we seem to be uncomfortable with people we can’t relate to with language or expression. We don’t like to be taken out of our comfort zone. 

Perhaps if we understood the different disorders and symptoms, we could bridge the gap from unawareness to caring and at the very least, have an understanding about who these people are and what conditions they suffer from. Maybe then we could serve them through understanding first and action second. 

The Brain and Behavior Research Foundation website states: “Affective disorders such as depression and bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, anxiety disorders, and substance abuse disorders are among the most common types of mental illness in the homeless population.”

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “Schizophrenia is characterized by significant impairments in perception and changes in behavior. Symptoms may include persistent delusions, hallucinations, disorganized thinking, highly disorganized behavior, or extreme agitation.” 

WHO further states that bipolar or manic symptoms “may include euphoria or irritability, increased activity or energy, and … increased talkativeness, racing thoughts, increased self-esteem, decreased need for sleep, distractibility, and impulsive reckless behavior.” 

These are common mental health issues among the homeless population in New York City. There are other forms of mental illness and although the ones cited can be managed with proper healthcare, the problem becomes exacerbated with financial problems and drug dependency.  According to, “Most research shows that around 1/3 of people who are homeless have problems with alcohol and/or drugs, and around 2/3 of these people have lifetime histories of drug or alcohol use disorders.” Yes, drug abuse is also a mental health crisis.  

I realize there are more questions than answers, but through questioning, the work begins. The interesting thing to note is that mental health in the homeless population is a societal problem with roots in economics, genes, equity, opportunity (or lack thereof), housing, employment, and drug abuse. We must consider all these factors before we say, “They brought this on themselves” or “It’s someone else’s problem.” Anyone can find themselves in this situation, and if we are not sure how to help, then maybe we can educate ourselves by feeding our humanity and working toward true equity for all. 

There is a bright spot in all of this: Jordan Neely left us a message that simply says, “I am a person also.”  

Dr. Clarence Williams Jr. is a retired assistant superintendent in the New York city public school system and an assistant professor. He holds a doctorate in educational leadership, a master’s in education administration, a master’s in multicultural education, and a K–12 license in special education and educational leadership. He has worked as an educator and leader in the public school system for more than 30 years.

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