Jordan Neely was 30. His mother was murdered by her boyfriend when he was 14. He was not a troublesome student, but he didn’t make it through school. He loved dancing, adored Michael Jackson, and made some cash impersonating him on the subway, but he didn’t have a stable living situation. Jordan Neely had also been arrested 42 times, according to CNN. He had a drug problem. His behavior was erratic. In 2021, he hit an old lady and was arrested again, and in February a judge spared him prison in exchange for agreeing to go to a rehab center and not use drugs for 15 months. He left the center after two weeks.
Very few people cared about any of this until Jordan Neely was killed.
A lot of people now have opinions and concerns about Neely, who was screaming and had thrown his coat on the floor of the New York City subway, according to witnesses, when Daniel Penny, a 24-year-old Marine, with the help of others, held him in a chokehold until he died. A lot of people have a lot of views of what was wrong with what happened, how Neely should have been treated and who failed him, and whose fault it is, and who should have done what, but extremely few people really want to regularly interact with the community to which Neely belonged.
In some ways, Daniel Penny did what nobody else wanted to do—he engaged with Neely. He had a tragically poor understanding of how to handle the situation and seems to have believed, possibly influenced by cultural stereotypes about poor and Black people, that Neely presented an imminent threat. To many, his actions ended up more like a lynching than an intervention. His lawyer says that Penny “never intended to harm” Neely. (Had Neely been afforded a lawyer before he was judged, he or she might have argued that Neely never meant to hurt anyone either.)
One of the reasons Neely is dead is that Penny brought a combatant’s skills to a negotiator’s problem. People see those who are homeless or mentally ill as a threat in a way they don’t see people with purely physical ailments and their fear can cloud their judgment. “Associating erratic behavior [like Neely’s] with dangerous behavior to me is a cognitive leap,” says Josiah Haken, who runs City Relief, an organization that sets up mobile outreach stations for people who are living on the streets throughout New York City. “That is a direct result of a narrative that we tell in our society about the dangerous Black homeless man.”
I’ve been mugged on the New York City subway. I understand what it is to suddenly have one’s life threatened between stops. But I’ve also slept, as a volunteer, at a homeless shelter, and I’ve learned that nobody not in an actual war has more reason to fear being attacked than people who are unhoused. They are much more often the victims than the perpetrators of violence. One of the women at the shelter kept her shoes on while she slept, the better to run away if necessary.
The number of people experiencing the kind of chronic homelessness that cursed Neely increased by 16% between 2020 and 2022, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. He belonged to a subset of the unhoused population who have been without a place to live for a long time and are often dealing with a disability that makes them a bad fit for shelters or congregant housing. They’re the ones who often end up on the streets and in public view.
Perhaps partly because of this increase, homelessness advocates have noticed a waning in empathy for those experiencing homelessness and mental-health challenges across the board recently. “It feels like these days, there’s less tolerance for people who are having a harder time, people who are living on the margins of our city,” says Brian Ourien, the director of communications at The Bowery Mission, the oldest rescue mission in the U.S. “During the pandemic, there was a heightened involvement, a heightened engagement, and heightened giving. But post pandemic, all of that has been decreasing, including giving, engagement and empathy.”
The pandemic and the unprecedented restrictions necessitated by its arrival may have played a role in people’s increasing trepidation toward those living on the margins Ourien mentions. Two years of heightening threats have left folks out of practice at de-escalation. Moreover, they don’t have a lot of examples around to imitate. They don’t see people toning it down on their social media feeds; they don’t see it on the streets, in the schools, in the stores, in the places where we (used to) all learn how and when to take the temperature down a notch.
Haken, who wrote a book on homelessness, Neighbors With No Doors, says the use of police to deal with those experiencing homelessness has made an anxious people even more afraid. “My first thought [when I heard about Neely], honestly, was that we created the situation by reinforcing negative stereotypes, and utilizing police to respond to homeless folks, rather than care coordinators, social workers, outreach professionals,” he says. “We made our bed. And this is the consequence.”
Recent data has shown that murders of unhoused people have been on the rise. Just in the past few days, eight undocumented migrants were killed when a car slammed into them as they sat on the curb in Brownsville, Texas. In April, a former San Francisco city official was accused of attacking residents of a local tent community, with, among other things, bear spray. Instead of compassion, homeless people are getting hostility.
Mentally ill folks who are homeless are doubly cursed, because they don’t have a good spokesperson. There’s no Gabby Giffords to explain what it’s like to be paralyzed by a bullet, no Randy Pausch to plead the case for more pancreatic cancer funding. There are just people whose brains have betrayed them, who haven’t eaten or slept, who have been the subject of public revulsion. Those folks have a tough time advocating for themselves. Their attempts often look like ranting or aggression. It’s hard for those they encounter to be empathetic toward someone who’s yelling and spitting at them. It’s much easier to care about them in the abstract—like when they’re dead.
It’s tempting to point the finger at the families of those who are mentally ill, to ask what happened to all the people who are supposed to care about them. Why would bystanders care if their family of origin didn’t? And it’s true that far fewer people end up on the street when they’re mentally ill if they have intact families who know them, watch their medication, keep an eye on their moods, provide stability. People with mental illness can run through the folks trying to help them pretty quickly, and if they don’t have a loved one watching out for them, they can spiral fast.
But sometimes it’s the families that caused the harm in the first place. There was abuse or cruelty. “Underlying a lot of homelessness is a lack of trust,” says Ourien. “People have had promises broken by family, friends, even people who were wanting to help them.” One guest at the Bowery Mission told Ourien that when he addressed him by his name, it was the first time he’d heard it in 20 years.
Neely’s death is a tragedy and an outrage. But the life of every unsheltered person is also its own kind of tragedy and outrage. Protests of Neely’s death are appropriate, but the afflictions that took him to that subway car and to that fate are being visited upon thousands of people right now. And until we see those people as worthy of our attention and compassion, of dignity, and begin to treat them that way when we encounter them, there will only be fear and distrust and more unnecessary deaths. “Homelessness can be overcome through the power of community; mental-health challenges can be overcome through the power of community,” says Ourien. “We find that community, a safe community, where there’s a lot of camaraderie and shared growth, that builds trust.”
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