special report

Dialing 911 Daily: How Mental Health Crisis Strains Neighborhoods

The infamous institution looms over Queens Village.
The infamous institution looms over Queens Village. Photo: Christine Chung/THE CITY

At the far edge of Queens sits the imposing beige-brick Creedmoor Psychiatric Center, looming over surrounding suburban streets lined with matching red-brick co-op apartments with small green lawns and tidy white shutters.

For the most part, this huge state-run facility keeps to itself. But lately, neighborhood residents have noted a growing number of men – many confirmed to be Creedmoor patients – roaming the neighborhood, soliciting money and at times behaving erratically.

“There is no subway where I live, so it’s not like people are just coming here,” said Ali Najmi, 34, who lives across from Creedmoor in the Glen Oaks apartments. “You can see where they walk back to, and they walk back to Creedmoor.”

Ali Najmi, of Glen Oaks, has noted a rise in the number of people with mental health issues.
Ali Najmi, of Glen Oaks, has noted a rise in the number of people with mental health issues. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Sometimes the men panhandle at a nearby 7-Eleven, neighbors said. Sometimes they accost drivers at stop lights. Sometimes they walk in traffic.

Sometimes, when behavior crosses a line, those residents dial 911.

“They are begging for money and they’ve been seen buying alcohol, which I can’t imagine is good for them with all the meds they’re on,” said Najmi, a criminal defense attorney who is politically active in Queens. “They’re just let out with no supervisor or no help. They need better than that.”

A Surge of 911 Calls

Hospital officials say they work with the community and local cops to try to ensure safety. But the situation around the 480-bed Creedmoor is just one manifestation of a bigger problem: an alarming rise in 911 calls seeking police assistance with the emotionally disturbed.

Citywide in every precinct, the number of these calls has climbed each year, from 97,000 in 2009 to nearly 180,000 last year, as City Hall and the NYPD struggle to keep up. NYPD and city officials in charge of wrestling with the issue have noted a concentration of these calls in areas that host psychiatric hospitals and homeless shelters for the mentally ill.

A significant number of these calls in these precincts come from staff within the hospitals and shelters seeking police intervention when patients or clients are a danger to themselves or others. But many of these calls come from the surrounding neighborhoods.

In three neighborhoods affected by the presence of psychiatric facilities examined by THE CITY, the spike in 911 calls seeking police response for what the NYPD calls EDPs — emotionally disturbed persons — was apparent.

In all three precincts, local residents interviewed said they have made multiple calls to 911 over the last few years to address disturbing incidents near mental health facilities. While the data makes clear every precinct experienced a rising number of these calls, these neighborhoods experienced much higher numbers than similar areas with no such facilities.

Creedmoor, for example, is located in the 105th Precinct, where the number of 911 calls seeking police assistance for EDPs rose from 2,778 in 2014 to 3,810 in 2017, with a slight drop last year to 3,658. That comes out to 10 calls a day.

The nearby 111th Precinct, which includes Bayside and Douglaston and includes no city or state psych centers, gets about two calls per day. Last year there were 867 EDP calls there, up from 615 in 2014.

Brooklyn’s 73rd Precinct includes both state-run Kingsboro Psychiatric Center and the city-run Kings County Hospital psych ward. The number of 911 mental health-related calls there has increased from 3,252 in 2014 to 4,162 last year. That works out to 11 calls per day, every day.

That compares to the three calls per day in Greenpoint’s 94th Precinct, which fielded 951 calls last year, up from 587 in 2014. There are no city or state psych facilities in that precinct.

As THE CITY reported last month, training for cops to deal with mental health calls has lagged, and special “co-response” teams of police and mental health workers formed three years ago were never connected to the 911 system.

NYPD statistics show that about half of all these so-called EDP calls end up with a patient transported by cops or EMTs to hospital psych wards. And once they’re dropped off, they enter a system that is set up to eventually give them the freedom to come and go at will.

At Creedmoor, a small number of in-patient clients are allowed to leave during the day, State Office of Mental Health officials said. Eligibility to leave is based on a clinical assessment by staff.

Most of the patients in state-run psychiatric centers allowed out of the facilities during the day — including those staying at Creedmoor and Kingsboro — are officially out-patients who are living in adjacent transitional housing. Those patients are allowed to come and go, with a suggested 10 p.m. curfew.

State Office of Mental Health (OMH) spokeswoman Jessica Riley said this transitional housing provides “the life-skills assistance individuals with mental illness need to integrate into the community.” The residents are provided help “to support the transition into more independent community living.”

Brooklyn’s Kingsboro Psychiatric Center.
Brooklyn’s Kingsboro Psychiatric Center. Photo: Claudia Irizarry Aponte/THE CITY

A small percentage of in-patients are also allowed out at Creedmoor and Kingsboro, but only under specific conditions including a prohibition on the use of drugs or alcohol and drug and alcohol testing when they return. Some of the in-patients allowed out must be accompanied by an escort.

Some of the transitional facilities are state-run, some are run by the city, and some are operated by nonprofits. Because of this, Riley said, it’s difficult to know precisely where the people that residents are calling about are coming from. She added that the out-patients who are allowed to come and go are enrolled in programs to help them manage their lives.

Revolving Doors of Treatment

But a former clinician at Kingsboro Psych said patients often wind up wandering the neighborhood unsupervised as they cycle through the system.

Patients are at first assigned to a restrictive setting in what’s called Building Two. But once they reach what the staff feels is a higher level of recovery, they’re moved to less restrictive Building Three and allowed to leave at will.

“There’s no enforcement to take medication, no groups or counselors,” said the former Kingsboro staffer, who worked at the center for more than three years and left last year.

The ex-staffer said that if a patient living in the less restrictive ward got involved in an incident in the neighborhood, the cops would bring them to the nearby city-run Kings County psych ward. After a time there, they’d be sent back over to Kingsboro, and the cycle would begin anew.

“In my experience, they’d come back to us in one, two months tops,” the former staffer said. “I felt they were unleashing a plague on the community.”

The situation with Creedmoor — the legendary psych hospital where the late-rocker Lou Reed once received electroshock therapy and where iconic folk hero Woody Guthrie died — is particularly bizarre given its location in a suburb-like neighborhood within the city that’s miles from the nearest subway.

Gerald Wind, 70, president of the Bellerose Hillside Civic Association, said his group meets quarterly with Creedmoor management to discuss how to deal with patients begging for money in the neighborhood.

“They’ve told us a lot of the patients there do get a monthly stipend, but a lot of times they’ll blow the stipend on cigarettes and or drugs – not legal drugs,” he said. “Once that money is gone, then of course they want to get money from whoever they can.”

He described patients — sometimes wearing Creedmoor IDs around their necks — banging on car windows stopped at the light at Union Turnpike and Winchester Blvd. One man – later identified by hospital staff as a patient — was caught on security video defecating in the driveway of a nearby condo, he said.

“Sometimes they get a little crazy. They walk in traffic. They are a danger to themselves, too,” Wind said.

Najmi, of Glen Oaks, seeing described beggars who are “visibly sick or clearly heavily medicated or there is something wrong with them” and noted the numbers began rising in 2015.

“It has gotten worse,” he said. “This is not a neighborhood that ever had a lot of panhandling, so it’s a remarkable shift.”

At Creedmoor, Office of Mental Health spokeswoman Riley said that since 2017 facility managers have worked with the neighborhood, the 105th Precinct and nonprofits running psychiatric housing on the Creedmoor campus to address community concerns.

“We continue to work with these groups and have increased patrols by our own safety department in the surrounding community and are coordinating with the local precinct to identify individuals who are responsible for any misconduct,” Riley said.

A ‘Critical Mass’ of People With Mental Issues

Another hotspot has emerged on East 125 Street near Lexington Avenue in East Harlem’s 25th Precinct, where a city bus drops off some residents from the Manhattan Psychiatric Center and homeless shelters on Wards and Randalls islands. There, the number of 911 mental health calls rose from 3,259 in 2014 to 4,186 last year.

On a recent weekday, THE CITY observed a chaotic scene at the intersection of East 125th Street and Lexington Avenue that is all too familiar to locals: dozens of people, mostly men, hanging out on sidewalks, some talking to themselves, some leaning heavily, slack-jawed, apparently intoxicated or on drugs.

Where the men come from is hard to say, precisely. There are several drug rehabilitation centers in the area, as well as service providers for homeless people. Then there’s the M35 bus, which does a loop between East Harlem and Wards and Randalls islands, home to the state-run psychiatric center and five homeless shelters.

Carey King, director of Uptown Grand Central, a nonprofit street improvement and business booster on East 125th Street, said many of these drugged-out individuals come to the area on the M35 bus, then hang out on the street all day. Some go under the Metro-North subway station on Park Avenue. Some take drugs and wind up collapsed in the street, as they did during a K2 wave in the summer of 2015.

“There’s just a critical mass of people here that have mental issues. You have about 1,000 people per day coming from Randalls and Wards,” King said. “A lot of times the drug use is correlated with EDP because they’re acting out or whatever. You don’t know what they’re on. They’re just acting crazy. So, you call 911.”

Domingo Vasquez, community liaison to the 25th Precinct, said the daily bus drop-offs create nightmarish conditions for the neighborhood.

East Harlem pharmacist Magda Ayac said she makes frequent 911 calls because of people with mental health issues.
East Harlem pharmacist Magda Ayac said she makes frequent 911 calls because of people with mental health issues. Photo: Rachel Holliday Smith/THE CITY

“They just dump them there … and these guys, the majority, have nothing to do through the whole day,” he said. “They’re hanging out, drinking, pills, getting high, asking for money and so on. It’s very congested. The whole area. Lexington Avenue, Park Avenue. A lot of stores have a lot of issues, a lot of problems.”

One such store is the Riverton Pharmacy, located across the street from where the M35 drops its passengers at 125th and Lexington. Supervising pharmacist Magda Ayac said she calls 911 frequently, including one time last year store employees caught a group trying to steal soap.

When an employee confronted them, one person “took a knife, a big knife, a machete knife. And then when [she] showed the knife, of course our Lotto guy went back and at that point … I just made the phone call” to 911.

The suspect ran out of the store, but the police caught up with her later and arrested her, Ayac said.

‘The Calls Are Not Going to Stop’

Over in East Flatbush, patients come and go from both the state-run Kingsboro Psychiatric Center and city-run Kings County Hospital. There are also five homeless shelters for men in the area. In the last five years, the number of 911 calls to NYPD for mental health interventions has risen dramatically.

Gail Dixon, the president of the East 48th & E. 49th Street Block Association, who lives a block away from Kingsboro, has made some of those calls.

“They lean in your driveway, they sit on your steps, I’ve had to call and tell many of them it’s not the place for them,” she said. “Those calls are not going to stop. You can quote me on that. The calls will not stop to the precinct until something is done where these clients have a curfew and they know that this is not just a patrol area that they can come in 24/7 and walk up and down. It doesn’t work like that.”

Dixon, too, described disoriented men asking residents for money. She said it was particularly bad last summer, but even in the winter months locals — particularly senior citizens — have had to worry about being accosted.

When she sees emotionally distressed people, Dixon said, her first step is to call the shelter.

“I already have a relationship with them,” she said. “If nothing is done, then I call the police.”

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