Jordan Neely’s death reflects the inhumane consequences of being homeless, experts say

New York police officers respond to the scene where Jordan Neely died on a subway train, Monday, May 1, 2023, in New York. (Paul Martinka via AP file)
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Protesters gathered on crowded subway platforms across New York City and marched down city streets in the days after a subway rider killed Jordan Neely, 30, by placing him in a chokehold for several minutes on a train in the middle of the day.

Advocacy groups and Neely’s supporters are demanding justice, requesting social services for people with mental health issues and calling attention to local policies that, they say, further marginalize unhoused communities in the city.

Shelly Nortz, deputy executive director for policy at the Coalition for the Homeless, said negative stereotypes and rhetoric about crime stokes an unfair fear and a general disdain for unhoused people, which leads to violence against them.

“When this population is demonized, it is tantamount to giving vigilantes the opportunities and the blessing to take the law into their own hands,” Nortz said. “This poor man was standing there in desperate need of food and water and was so emotionally overwrought by his need that he was expressing it loudly, but in no way endangering other human beings. The person who used his military skills to kill him needs to be held accountable for that,” Nortz added about the 24-year-old Marine who allegedly put Neely in the chokehold.

The incident happened around 2:27 p.m. Monday on a northbound F train. One witness told NBC New York that Neely got on the subway car and began saying he was hungry and thirsty and that he “didn’t care about anything, he didn’t care about going to jail, he didn’t care that he gets a big life sentence. That ‘it doesn’t even matter if I died.’”

Video of the incident shows the man, whose name has not been released, put Neely in a chokehold for several minutes, while two other passengers restrained him. Responding officers found Neely unconscious at the Broadway and East Houston Street subway station; he was taken to a hospital where he was pronounced dead, New York police said in a statement.

Neely’s death was ruled a homicide by the city medical examiner. No charges have been filed as of Friday afternoon, but the Manhattan district attorney’s office said his death is under investigation.

Carolyn Neely, Jordan Neely’s aunt, told the New York Post that he suffered from depression, schizophrenia and PTSD. These symptoms worsened after Neely’s mother was murdered in 2007 and he “has never been the same,” she said.

Elizabeth Bowen, an associate professor at the University of Buffalo's School of Social Work, said unhoused people are often stereotyped as being unstable and dangerous, or having substance abuse issues. Bowen said that while a disproportionate number of homeless people experience mental health problems and substance use, that does not mean they’re prone to violence. She also said these beliefs often stem from a “fundamental fear of people that are different from us.”

“Seeing people that are homeless, you know, sometimes remind the rest of us of our own privileges, and that makes people uncomfortable,” Bowen said. “And that discomfort can lead to fear.” Media portrayals of unhoused people usually depict them as violent or unstable, she added. This leads people to engage in fear-based responses because they assume that “any homeless person is likely to be violent or likely to attack them,” Bowen said.

Bowen said that, instead of fatally restraining Neely, bystanders could have contacted a subway employee, a mental health response team, or an outreach service for unhoused people. Race, she added, was also a factor in this incident.

“Unfortunately, both men and people of color — especially Black men — are more likely to experience homelessness,” Bowen said, adding that unhoused people are more likely to experience various kinds of trauma. “And I think there’s also a lot of stereotypes out there and concerns about how Black men are represented in the media, images of Black men being violent, that is a persistent stereotype in the United States.”

Experts say that most people with mental health problems are not violent, and chronic homelessness can exacerbate mental health issues. “People with mental illness are more likely to be a victim of crime than to commit one,” Nortz said.

New York City has long experienced high levels of homelessness. In December 2022 alone, there were 68,884 homeless people in the city, both in shelters and on the streets. This included more than 21,000 children, according to the Coalition for the Homeless. Over the city’s 2022 fiscal year, 102,656 adults and children were in the New York City Department of Homeless Services’ shelter system, according to a report from the coalition. A majority of the city’s homeless population is Black or Latino, according to a report from the coalition.

“Homelessness and poverty are inextricably linked,” the National Coalition for the Homeless said in a report. The report found that primary causes of homelessness include lack of affordable housing, domestic violence, job loss or declining wages, mental illness, addiction disorders and decline in public assistance.

Support services for unhoused communities are largely inaccessible due to lack of transportation, feelings of judgment from a provider and lack of trauma-informed services. Bowen said leaders should work to provide more affordable housing through programs like Housing First, which provides permanent supportive housing for homeless individuals.

New York City Mayor Eric Adams and New York Gov. Kathy Hochul have drawn criticism for their initial responses to news of Neely’s death. Adams did not condemn the killing in a statement, but called the death “tragic” and said his administration is committed to getting people off “the streets and the subways, and out of dangerous situations.”

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who represents parts of New York City, called Adams’ statement a “new low.” “Not being able to clearly condemn a public murder because the victim was of a social status some would deem ‘too low’ to care about,” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted.

Meanwhile, Hochul weighed in on Wednesday saying, “There’s consequences for behavior.” She later seemed to walk back her statements in a news conference saying that Neely’s family “deserves justice.

The statements illustrated advocates’ perception of Hochul and Adams who, they say, have implemented policies that harm rather than help unhoused communities. The Adams administration has sent police and sanitation workers to tear down homeless encampments and involuntarily hospitalize unhoused people. Adams, who assumed office in January 2022, said during a press conference last year that homeless New Yorkers “and hundreds of others like them are in urgent need of treatment, yet often refuse it when offered.” Adams and Hochul also announced an expanded initiative last year to address transit crimes and promote subway safety, which critics said disproportionately targets homeless people of color.

Hochul referred to the subway safety plan in her remarks on Wednesday, saying that the number of subway crimes has declined due to increased surveillance from cameras and police officers.

Nortz decried these policies and said violence against unhoused people is a “visceral response that I think arises more frequently when we have politicians who feed a negative narrative about homeless people.”

“They’ve missed an opportunity to educate the public and have instead put a bull's-eye on the people that really are in need of our compassion and our help.”

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