Jordan Neely’s arrest charges show criminalization of homelessness

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Jordan Neely’s arrest record was not a surprise to nonprofit employees directly working with the country’s unhoused and housing insecure population.

Shortly after Neely’s death at the hands of 24-year-old ex-marine Daniel Penny on a New York City subway train, Newsweek reported that the 30-year-old had been arrested 42 times, with charges ranging from criminal trespassing to transit fraud to alleged assault.

According to publicly available data, 281 Black men have been arrested for criminal trespassing in the city this year. Meanwhile, Penny, a white man, has not been charged in connection with Neely’s death.

A statement released through his lawyers said that “Daniel never intended to harm Mr. Neely and could not have foreseen his untimely death.”

Brian Ourien, communications director at The Bowery Mission, a nonprofit directly working with New York City’s unhoused population, said that he could only assume that the charges against Neely are common because “most people experiencing homelessness don’t have an income.”

“I could see how they possibly end up on the wrong side of the law as it relates to infractions on the subway, getting in and out of transit,” he said.

In 2022, New York City Mayor Eric Adams and New York Gov. Kathy Hochul launched the Subway Safety Plan, an initiative with the aim of removing unsheltered people from the city’s metro system. According to a press release, the mayor’s office invested $171 million annually to upgrade outreach programs and resources.

Their efforts were initially criticized by nonprofit workers who claimed that unhoused people had nowhere to go after leaving the subway.

And yet, officials praised the program once it appeared that arrests had gone down after its implementation.

Ourien said that he’s confident that some of his organization’s guest clients, who sometimes utilize their overnight shelter or stop in for a meal, have either been arrested or thrown off the subway.

When that happens, outreach programs might refer clients to pro bono organizations, like Open Hands Legal Services, which provides free advice to the city’s poor and oppressed, their website states.

Steve Berg, chief policy officer at the National Alliance to End Homelessness, has seen similar charges raised against unsheltered people in different parts of the country as part of a nationwide effort to criminalize homelessness by banning people from sleeping in public spaces.

He said that the subway might be an attractive option to some if they can find a spot that’s warm and where they’re not at risk of being thrown off.

“I don’t think anybody would think it’s great,” Berg said. “But given a lot of bad options, there are definitely people who feel like a mass transit system is the least bad of the options they have available to them.”

Still, advocates believe that the only way to solve the homelessness crisis is by making affordable housing available to unhoused people and deploying mental health professionals to assist them if needed.

Currently, the New York Housing Authority serves 535,686 city residents. Last year, Adams announced his intentions to build an additional 500,000 affordable housing units within the next decade.

But individuals experiencing homelessness may need housing in addition to mental health services, which are not available in many parts of the country. Instead, police officers may be brought in to respond to someone experiencing a mental health crisis.

“The criminal justice system does a terrible job of dealing with people with mental illness,” Berg said, adding that the fact is illustrated by Neely’s case and many others around the country. “Yet, in a lot of places, there are not other alternatives.”

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