Mental health response team absent from Midtown despite requests


Hauck and her cardboard placard

Diana Hauck, who is homeless, sits by the 33rd Street Subway Station. Photo by Xinyuan Cao

There’s a city-funded program in Upper Manhattan that dispatches mental health professionals to address non-violent psychiatric incidents, instead of the New York City Police Department.

Since launching in 2021, this service is now being expanded to Queens and Brooklyn, but Midtown residents say their repeated requests for help in their neighborhood remain unanswered.

The service, the Behavioral Health Emergency Assistance Response Division, known as B-HEARD, began as a pilot program in East Harlem. The goal was to reduce police interactions and hospitalizations, while utilizing more de-escalation tactics and community-based care.

A spokesperson in the Mayor’s Office of Community Mental Health, which funds B-HEARD, said the program provides immediate, on-the-scene counseling for a person in need, compared to a traditional 911 mental health response that transports people to hospitals under police supervision. The spokesperson also said that B-HEARD follows up with mental health care for every person it serves.

But Community Board 5, which covers Midtown, has been asking for B-HEARD’s presence for two years now to no avail, despite a homelessness crisis that has soared in the neighborhood since the pandemic. According to its website, CB5 wants more programs that “de-stigmatize mental health needs and encourage treatment” and demands “additional funding for expansion of the B-HEARD, or a similar program” for fiscal year 2024.

Ruben Vasquez is a security guard at Housing Works’ Drop-in Center near Penn Station. The non-profit organization offers wraparound services to homeless people and those living with HIV/AIDS.

Vasquez said homelessness is an issue in the area because people take shelter in the major Midtown transit hubs. He added that some of the people he speaks to have health issues and a number of challenges.

“There’s no centralized place to solve their problems all at once, so they’re back on the street again,” he said.

“There’s a huge gap between the help they can get and the danger they face,” said Vasquez, who has been a security guard at different homeless shelters for five years. “What we are doing now is far less than enough.”

Diana Hauck, 53, said she’s been living on the street for six months after fleeing an abusive relationship. She often holds a cardboard sign covered with pleas for help, next to the 33rd Street subway station in Koreatown.

Hauck said a lot of people on the street suffer from mental illness, pointing to a woman nearby. “The girl has been arrested several times, because she shouts and acts aggressive towards people.”

According to the Coalition for the Homeless, an advocacy group for homeless individuals and families, there were 84,526 people sleeping in New York City government-run shelters in June, a historic record.

Urban Barley Co., a beer retail store near Penn Station, has unhoused people lying around its storefront. “They shout and litter,” said Sayeed Mia, the store manager. “It’s bad for business.”

But Mia agrees that homelessness can cause mental health issues. “They’re not really aggressive to pedestrians, they’re more often pissed off by themselves,” he said.

Despite the fact that CB5 wants B-HEARD to service Midtown, the program’s effectiveness has been questioned, as it answered only 16% of eligible mental health calls citywide from January to March 2022, according to the program’s latest public data.

CB5 didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment.

“How many people in the city even know about B-HEARD? We are not getting the information into the right people,” said Katrina Balovlenkov, a social work professor at Columbia University and N.Y.U. “It needs more recruitment. It needs more energy. It needs more recognition. It needs more value. It needs more promotion.”

But changes in funding have been an issue for the program.

Under the de Blasio administration, B-HEARD had a budget of $92 million. But Mayor Adams cut that figure down to $50 million his first year in office, and most recently down to $27 million for fiscal year 2024, according to POLITICO.

B-HEARD has stepped up its recruitment efforts and modified its staffing model, said the spokesperson from the Mayor’s Office of Community Mental Health, in an email, but cited a national shortage of social workers as a reason for the slow expansion. There are plans to roll out the program’s citywide coverage by the end of fiscal year 2025, the spokesperson added.

Balovlenkov suspects that Midtown isn’t a priority because of its higher income and tourism, compared to other less affluent neighborhoods.

“Services are being directed to where the most 911 are being made,” she said, adding that demographics shouldn’t be a factor.