NYS Bar Association launches task force on homelessness amidst ongoing mental health crisis

July 20, 2023 Rob Abruzzese
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As New York City grapples with an escalating mental health crisis, the New York State Bar Association (NYSBA) is launching a new task force that will examine the intricate relationship between homelessness and the law. The task force aims to identify practical measures local, state, and federal governments can take to reduce homelessness, which currently affects over 74,000 New Yorkers, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

“Homelessness is a crisis, and you can see it in every city in this country,” said NYSBA President Richard Lewis. “This is a pressing issue that affects veterans, people with mental illness, victims of domestic violence, and many others. We live in the richest country in the world, and we should be able to help people who are experiencing homelessness and often find themselves in life-and-death situations.”

The Task Force on Homelessness and The Law, chaired by William Russell, a partner at Simpson Thacher & Bartlett in New York City, will focus on concrete steps governments can take to diminish street homelessness and improve the lives of the chronically homeless. Brooklyn Law School adjunct professor David Woll will also serve on the task force.

The launch of this task force follows Mayor Eric Adams’ recent address on the city’s escalating mental health crisis, focusing primarily on the homeless population. Adams outlined a five-pronged strategy that includes expediting the process for involuntary hospital evaluation, enhanced training for response teams, a dedicated hotline for guidance, a specialized intervention team, and pushing for legal amendments to include involuntary intervention in cases of basic needs neglect.

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Adams’ plan has, however, drawn criticism from some quarters. The Legal Aid Society, along with other public defender organizations, while acknowledging the urgency of addressing the mental health crisis, expressed concern over the role of the New York Police Department in the Mayor’s proposed interventions. Instead, they advocate for the Treatment Not Jail Act, which emphasizes voluntary, court-based treatments and services for those in the criminal legal system with underlying mental health issues.

The NYSBA’s task force will also consider how the criminal justice and healthcare systems impact those experiencing homelessness, an issue of critical concern raised in The Legal Aid Society’s statement. The group will strive to formulate ways to integrate these systems effectively, aiming to address and rectify homelessness at its root causes.

As New York City continues to confront its complex mental health and homelessness crisis, the NYSBA task force’s findings will likely play a crucial role in the development of practical, humane, and legally-sound solutions.


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