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Public Advocate Blasts Delays on de Blasio’s Mental Health ‘Diversion Centers’

An empty bedroom in the abandoned diversion center in East Bronx.
An empty bedroom in a renovated, yet-to-open diversion center in East Bronx
Hiram Alejandro Durán/THE CITY

Public Advocate Jumanne Williams wants an explanation about what’s holding up Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan for cops to bring individuals in mental-health distress to professionally staffed “diversion centers” instead of hospital emergency rooms or jail.

De Blasio originally announced the diversion center plan in 2014, his first year as mayor. As he gets set to leave office Dec. 31, his promised reform has yet to materialize.

In 2017, officials picked sites for two centers that were supposed to open by 2019. As THE CITY recently revealed, the East Harlem site has served fewer than 50 people since its February debut, while the other facility in the Bronx sits empty — fully renovated but with no opening date.

Meanwhile, the city Department of Health & Mental Hygiene has committed to spending $103 million on the sites, which have been renamed Support and Connection Centers. They’re part of the much-criticized mental health program run by de Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, that recently changed its name from ThriveNYC to the Office of Community Mental Health.

Chirlane McCray
Chirlane McCray spoke about the Thrive NYC program at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan in September 2018.
Deidre Schoo/Mayoral Photo Office

“I still want to be as constructive as possible on a whole host of issues, but there’s a lot of things that should have happened a lot sooner and just didn’t,” Williams told THE CITY. “We’re paying a price for that. It’s beyond frustrating.”

Williams has long advocated for less police interaction with individuals experiencing mental health crises, noting that 18 people have died during confrontations with cops over the last six years. He’s pressed for a separate 988 call-in number that would dispatch social workers and mental health professionals instead of cops.

All 911 mental health-related calls — whether or not there’s any indication of potential violence — currently result in an NYPD-only response.

‘Significant Delays’

This week, Williams wrote to de Blasio and copied Health Commissioner Dr. Dave Chokshi, acknowledging that the pandemic created unexpected obstacles to opening and running the centers, “but there are clearly other factors causing these significant delays.”

“It is with dismay that I learned of recent reports detailing that New York City’s Support and Connection Centers have done little to follow through on their promise to provide safe harbor and resources to New Yorkers in need, all while police partnered with these centers continue to respond to hundreds of mental health calls every month.”

“There is no lack of demand for these services but there appears to be a substantial lack of delivery,” Williams noted.

Public Advocate Jumaane Williams
Public Advocate Jumaane Williams
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Williams questioned whether the delay in opening the Bronx center changes the terms of the contract the Health Department has with Daytop Samaritan, the organization picked to renovate and run the facility. He also demanded the city provide a specific opening date for the site.

THE CITY found that from November when it opened through February, police had brought only 45 people to the facility in East Harlem. With a $52 million price tag, that means so far the taxpayers have spent $1.1 million per person taken there. Williams wants to know what services were provided to the 45 individuals.

The de Blasio administration originally estimated that each center would host 1,200 people per year. Williams asked whether administration officials still believed that would happen and when they “expect intake numbers to be on track to reach this target?”

A Billion-Dollar Question

A crucial issue with ThriveNYC was its inability to provide evidence of the $1 billion program’s accomplishments. Williams asked City Hall to explain how it intends to gauge whether the diversion centers are a success.

“We need to measure that, especially with something like a diversion center,” Williams said. “We need to use evidence-based models and adjust as necessary. How do you do that if you can’t measure it?”

He demanded specifics about how the money allocated for the program is being spent, including how many staff have been hired and exactly what staff will do.

That includes whether staffers will include “peers” — individuals who’ve experienced mental health issues themselves.

City Hall and the Health Department did not respond immediately to THE CITY’s request for comment on Williams’ letter.

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