D.A. Bragg Delivers Remarks on New $9 Million Mental Health Initiative

December 16, 2022

Alright great we’ll get started! Good morning! I love the response! I’m Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg. Thank you for joining us this morning for this important announcement of $9 million dollars to address our mental health and substance abuse crisis. Alright! Senator Jackson leading the way with the applause! And I am particularly happy to be here with so many colleagues and was noting that the geographic diversity which shows just the scope of the mental health and substance abuse crisis that’s facing the city and more particularly here, today, in this borough.

I want to thank our hosts:  

  • Mia Muratore, Director of Hartley House.
    • We are in this great facility that’s long been serving this community. I’m thankful to this institution for hosting us.
  • Michael Jacobson, Executive Director of Institute for State and Local Governance at CUNY;
    • Patrick Hart, who is standing in for him today. They’re our partner and all our forfeiture fund worked so yeah Jackson Scott; I love it! I love it!
  • Tom Harris, President of the Times Square Alliance, and a member of the Manhattan Small Business Alliance;
    • Who’s particularly the neighborhood navigator part of this that really gives rise from the great work in Times Square. And then my colleagues in government.
  • State Senator Robert Jackson
  • State Senator Brad Hoylman;
  • Council Member Erik Bottcher;
  • Council Member Gale Brewer;
  • Council Member Carlina Rivera
  • Assembly Member-Elect Tony Simone;
  • Assembly Member-Elect Alex Bores;

And I see we have just been joined by the Deputy Borough President, Keisha Sutton James

  • Joe Restuccia – Executive Director of Clinton Housing Development Company, Chair of Hell’s Kitchen Neighborhood Coalition, and member of the Midtown North Precinct Community Council Member;
  • Brian Webber – President of Midtown South Community Council;
  • Catie Savage – Co-Chair of 49th-54th Street Block Alliance & Founder of the Hell’s Kitchen Litter Legion

I also want to thank my staff who has been working hard and long on this initiative all year and in many ways many of them throughout her career, Sherene Crawford, who heads our Pathways to Public Safety work, who’s long been committed to this.

So, let me dive into sort of the meat of the announcement. I mentioned Mr. Harris. I also want to talk about our Business Alliance our Small Business Alliance this year in meetings we’ve been having with our Community Councils, our Block Associations that we have partnered with. This has really been a collaborative process that has led us to really commit these funds to this.

As DA, my role, I said this repeatedly, is to advance both public safety and fairness. These announcements today do exactly that. They are fairness and public safety announcements by addressing this crisis. We address recidivism and thereby advance public safety. I think we’ve all had the experiences as Manhattanites and city-goers.

It’s disconcerting and sometimes scary to see our neighbors who are plainly unwell whether its openly using drugs or behaving in a deserving manner, talking to themselves either above ground in our streets or below ground in our subways. These individuals need help. As do our neighborhoods and small businesses. We cannot ignore these issues and have people cycle through our court system again and again. By addressing these human needs, we address the broader needs of public safety in our community.

Our mental health infrastructure has long been inadequate. When I grew up, my father ran homeless shelters. That was one of my first introductions to behavioral health issues. The system was inadequate then but those who work in it and, I want to emphasize this, like my dad were heroes for the work they do every day and we hope the funding announced today will complement their efforts. That broken system was further disrupted by COVID as all of our structures from our civic structures to our churches to our mental health deliveries were disrupted and those who rely on the system that was already challenging to navigate had their services disrupted.   

That brings us to this announcement of $9 million today, broken into two parts for ease and will  use all of the RFP requests for proposal language for ease. I will refer to the first one as our neighborhood navigators and the second is our court-based navigators.

  • First, preventative neighborhood-based interventions that are not linked to criminal justice conduct.
  • Second, neighborhood navigators’ intervention immediately after criminal court arraignment that is distinct and separate from any court-mandated programming.

Both of these are completely voluntary initiatives that we are announcing today. I want to describe in some detail because I think it’s important to talk about how this is going to work mechanically for both of the programs.

The first program, on the purely preventative side, will develop networks of neighborhood navigators who will build relationships with individuals who are unhoused, living on the street and experiencing challenges with mental health or substance use. The grant solicitation for the neighborhood navigators is on our website today do this first piece is going live today.

To paint a picture of what this will mean, think about a navigator out in our communities introducing themselves to a person who sleeps in park, panhandling, perhaps yelling at no one in particular. Maybe the navigator first offers him a cup of coffee or a slice of pizza, initiates a contact, all towards gaining and building trust. Then perhaps the next day returns and on a cold day like today offers a cup of hot tea and gloves and maybe some warm food. Eventually, and this is all about the human connection, again the voluntary human connection, the navigator finds out that the person’s name is Joe. We all have a Joe in our mind from our neighborhoods. Ideally, the navigator steeped and experiencing this relates something from his or her own experience and Joe opens up a little bit.

Eventually, the navigator finds out that Joe has a medical condition but doesn’t have health insurance or hasn’t been able to address it or doesn’t know where to go first given that Joe is uninsured. So, the navigator helps with that problem initially, connects him, helps him get medication and stabilizes and then Joe’s able to talk about other issues in his life and slowly they begin to talk about longer term solutions like permanent housing or substance use treatment and they stay in regular touch. This is how our neighborhood navigator program is going to work and we know that because of past programs and the efficiency there.

In addition to working with Joe, the neighborhood navigators will also work with our small businesses and others out in the community and help problem solve. Again, think of the Joe’s that you know and the issue that emerges or issues that emerge and then having a navigator to call and intervene and help de-escalate and help navigate thereby how we get the name of our program.

So that’s the essence of our neighborhood navigator programs and as I said it comes out of collaborative discussion all year long from our partners based on those discussions, based upon data we’ve looked at.

We’ve identified four focused neighborhoods. They are first:

  • Washington Heights and Inwood
  • Chinatown and on the Lower East Side
  • Central and East Harlem, and
  • Hell’s Kitchen, Chelsea and Midtown West

In addition to those four, we’re going to have up to six based upon needs that will emerge during the request for proposal process. So that’s the first and again is live today on our website.

The second RFP will be issued in January, but we wanted to talk about it today. That is our Court-Based Navigators. As I said, starting right at arraignment in our courts, but separate and apart from our court system it will be, sort of a parallel voluntary and adjacent.

The goals are sort of similar to have the human connection established. We see it in court and if anyone wants to see the shortcoming of our mental health system, come on down to Manhattan Criminal Court or any of the Criminal Courts and you will see an array of people with various needs that have caused them in large part to end up in criminal court.

The goal will be to set participants up for success in returning to court, completing diversion programming, addressing behavioral health issues, and laying the groundwork for longer-term treatment.

So, I used Joe as an example of our neighborhood navigators. Let me have our illustrative Maria who let’s say is arrested for shoplifting from Duane Reade. The manager says this is the third time. The arresting officer recognizes Maria and she ends up in Criminal Court.

She goes to court and, based on the fact that Maria is presenting with a behavioral health issue, she is offered diversion. That’s something we’ve been doing and scaling up in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office this year, separate and apart from what we’re announcing today. That diversion would require certain mandates for Maria to complete, including attending appointments with a counselor and avoiding getting rearrested. But that’s not all of the issues that Maria is facing so connecting right there at arraignment as opposed to saying go somewhere three days from now to a neighborhood you’ve never known of and connect with this unknown service provider. Right there in arraignment while Maria is there and connecting her with service providers.

This is going to help in a bunch of ways, in addition to whatever the mandated diversion program may be, Maria still perhaps has a food need, a housing need, a transportation. The central part of this is the development of trust starting at that stage right there in arraignment. These proven community-based supports, independent of the criminal justice system, we know based on experience what will help break the cycle of recidivism and incarceration.

I want to close and turn to our government partners and again thank you CUNY and ISLG for its partnership. This has been a long-running endeavor with money’s seized in connection with cases against banks and then put to advancing our public safety.

I will close by saying these grants are rooted in observations throughout the year as I’ve seen the system work and not work. Rooted as in long-term observations I mentioned my father’s experience in homeless shelters and rooted in data and performance and really in the faith and the knowledge that community-based solutions and those with expertise and human connections will help those in need and equally as important, help advance public safety.

With that I want to turn it over and I mentioned in the introduction, Tom Harris, really in many ways is the inspiration in what he’s done with the Times Square Alliance for this exact type of programming. So let me turn it over to Tom.

Thanks so much!