Even during his first months as mayor, Eric Adams was intent on dehumanizing the homeless. On February 17, 2022, the mayor declared that he gave New York Police Department (NYPD) officers a clear mandate to enforce Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) rules on the subway against drug use, littering, lying down on seats, and “using the subway for any purpose other than transportation” — measures designed to harass homeless people and force them out of the subway. Shockingly, Adams then said about homeless people: “You can’t put a Band-Aid on a cancerous sore. That’s not how you solve the problem. You must remove the cancer to start the healing process.”
By comparing the homeless to a cancerous tumor, Adams was publicly dehumanizing the homeless — and questioning their right to exist.
Adams’s words that day should be kept in mind when considering the heinous murder of Jordan Neely on May 1 on the F train at the Broadway-Lafayette stop by Daniel Penny, a twenty-four-year-old former marine. That murder is not an isolated incident; it comes in the context of an escalation in the criminalization of the homeless that has been a hallmark of Adams’s tenure. Just in September, when large numbers of migrants in need of humanitarian aid arrived in the city, many of whom were bused here by Republican governors in other states, Adams tried to “reassess” the city’s right-to-shelter law, which guarantees a bed to anyone who needs it. This week, he weakened the law in anticipation of more migrants. Adams has been willing to relocate and devalue the homeless of this city, treating them as an annoyance that he wishes would just go away.
To Adams and the defenders of this brutal killing, Jordan Neely was less than human. Never mind that Neely was agitated because he had no home, had no occupation, and had not eaten in days, a condition that could make anyone nervous. That he was highly emotional and erratic in public — behavior you can witness in any number of the city’s bars — doesn’t mean that he did not ultimately deserve protection and empathy from his fellow citizens and the City of New York.
In New York, homelessness tragically isn’t strange. Seventy thousand people are homeless in the city. Despite the fact that we live in the wealthiest country in history, many people have been conditioned to view ending homelessness as unattainable and hopelessly idealistic. So homelessness has become mundane. No one who lives in New York City is surprised to find themselves engaging with homeless people in public spaces. Money will be asked for; some will be given out of empathy and charity. Some homeless people will get closer to you than you’d like; others you may find charming. This is what happens in a city that has chosen to live with homelessness rather than end it.
On May 3, two days after Neely was left lifeless by a fellow citizen, Mayor Adams issued a statement of ambiguity toward the murder: “We cannot just blanketly say what a passenger should or should not do in a situation like that.” A human being was murdered, and Adams effectively said we can’t know if the murder was justified.
Despite later statements arguing that Penny should not have killed Neely, this quote is troublesome. The initial reaction of New York City’s top executive expressed callous indifference to the murder of a human being. That indifference is reflected in his policymaking.
For all of Mayor Adams’s posturing about how much he loves this city, he is in fact cutting desperately needed social services and public institutions such as libraries and schools while increasing the police budget, at the same time he pops up at the swanky club Zero Bond and mentors shady businessmen. He doesn’t love working-class New York. By cutting social services that could keep people like Jordan Neely safe, Adams is hanging the homeless out for deadly chokeholds.
In the days after Neely’s murder, numerous publications ran articles about who Jordan Neely was. People deserve to know that Neely was a Michael Jackson impersonator who made people smile and laugh while doing the infamous crotch grab and moonwalk, and that he tragically started having mental health issues after his mother was murdered by her partner in 2007.
But that tragic backstory doesn’t justify what happened on that subway car. Neely’s life mattered. He was a human being, like any of us. When he declared that he was ready to die, it was a testament to his dire situation. A fifteen-minute lethal chokehold should not have been his fate. New York’s power brokers have decided that, just because they sleep on our city streets or trains, people like Neely are less than human.
Those who take the subway every day know how the conditions can cause annoyance and discomfort. But if we deserve to be safe, so do the homeless. Neely’s mental health issues exacerbated his dozen or so run-ins with police; his aunt, Carolyn Neely, says that “the system just failed him. He fell through the cracks of the system.” This was someone who needed help, not a death sentence. Just last April, the mayor carried out sweeps of encampments. The message was clear: the homeless were under attack by the city.
Earlier this week, the mayor changed his tune. “One of our own is dead, a black man, black like me, a man named Jordan, a name I gave my son,” Adams said. “One thing we know for sure, Jordan Neely did not deserve to die.” The mayor also said people who struggle with mental illness are “caught up in a cycle of violence, sometimes as the perpetrator, but more often as the victim.”
This statement is way too late. The mayor’s trite swagger, amid his closure of libraries and cuts to public goods like schools and social services, is paving the way for more Jordan Neely’s to become victims, jailed, or, worse, killed like Neely was that afternoon — in a city that claims to love him while viewing him as a cancer.