We are all bystanders as Americans die because they are homeless
Washington Post May 6, 2023
Watching a person be killed on video differs in a crucial way from hearing about it. That view forces us to simultaneously look outward and inward. It forces us to bear witness with our eyes and consider with our minds what action we would have taken in that moment if we had been standing there, able to do more than just watch.
By now, you have probably seen the video that shows the final moments of Jordan Neely's life in a New York City subway, and if you haven't, then you have no doubt heard about it.
What that video doesn't show: Neely was a Michael Jackson impersonator who entertained people with his impressive dance moves, until he couldn't. He was someone who was able to tuck away a horrific childhood trauma and make strangers smile, until he couldn't. The 30-year-old was experiencing homelessness and mental illness, and on Monday, in the moments before he was killed, he reportedly shouted on the train that he was hungry, thirsty and tired of having nothing. He then reportedly threw his coat on the floor and talked about not caring if he went to jail.
What that video does show: Another passenger, who has since been identified as a 24-year-old Marine veteran named Daniel Penny, placed Neely in a chokehold and held him on the floor of the train. He kept him in that position, with the assistance of two other men at one point, even after Neely grew still. Too still.
Authorities pronounced Neely dead that day, and on Wednesday, the city medical examiner ruled the death a homicide.
The killing has since ignited justifiable anger, grief and outrage. As of Friday much still remained uncertain, including whether the men who restrained him would face charges, but this much was clear: Neely should be alive. He needed help in that moment, and long before that moment, and he didn't get it.
"I would have been SCREAMING at that man to let him go!" reads a comment under a Facebook post of the video, which was taken by Juan Alberto Vazquez. "Why are those people just standing there? Why did no one check a pulse? No CPR? Nothing! This is sickening."
It's easy, of course, to feel that way when we are removed from the situation. It's easy to watch what happened through a screen and believe that if we had been a bystander we would have stood up and done something instead of stood there and done nothing.
But here's the thing: We are bystanders. We are bystanders every day, watching people who are unhoused succumb to a slow chokehold. Jordan Neely was a unique individual with unique skills and unique struggles. But in D.C. and other major cities across the country, there are many people like him, and we know they are dying in preventable and premature ways.
The numbers tell us that. The stories that occurred before that video of Neely went viral tell us that. And what we see in front of us every day as we make our way through our cities tells us that.
In D.C. last year, more than 70 people died while homeless. Some of the causes: intoxication, hypothermia and homicide. The youngest person who died was 30. Others who died were 31, 32, 36, 41 and 45. The average age was 55.
Those ages appeared on a list shared by advocates who hold a vigil every year for the people who die in the city "without the dignity of a home." When those advocates took a deep look at the lives behind those numbers, they found that most of those people died while waiting to use housing vouchers and that the losses didn't fall evenly across racial lines. Nearly 85 percent of the people who died in the city last year without housing were Black.
None of those individuals were held in a chokehold on a train. But make no mistake, they died because they were homeless. They died because officials have shown time and again that they are more interested in trying to push people who are unhoused out of sight than pull them out of homelessness and the dangers that come with it.
D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser vowed to end homelessness and has made some notable strides toward that goal, including closing the D.C. General family shelter after the disappearance of 8-year-old Relisha Rudd.
But under her leadership, tent encampments have also been cleared before housing has been secured for all of the people in them, leaving unhoused individuals displaced and disconnected. I told you in an earlier column about a woman who was forced to leave an encampment and was alone when her tent collapsed under the snow.
In February, dozens of people, and their belongings, were removed from McPherson Square by the National Park Service. A day later, officials estimated that two-thirds of the people who had been displaced were still sleeping on the street.
More recently, D.C. officials announced that the city was no longer placing migrant families at shelter hotels because they were full. One of those hotels is a Days Inn. That means migrant families who come to D.C. without housing or much of anything are hearing from the city a rejection with biblical roots: "There's no room at the Inn." It would be laughable if it weren't true.
An organizer with the Migrant Solidarity Mutual Aid Network, which has been helping migrant families since they started arriving on buses from Texas and other states, told me on Friday that about 20 families have arrived since the city made that announcement. The organization has found residents to take in some of those families and paid for hotel rooms for others. Their effort is admirable, but it should not fall on volunteers to try to keep people from ending up on the street.
The city needs to prioritize providing more temporary and permanent housing options for struggling families - no matter where they were born - because the local homeless population is not disappearing. On Friday, newly released data revealed that the city's homeless population has increased by 11.6 percent in the past year.
Anyone who has spent time with people who are unhoused knows these are not easy issues. Getting people who have been chronically homeless, or suddenly thrust into it, into stable housing is complicated. It's even more so when people have a history of trauma and mental illness. (When Neely was a teenager, his mother was strangled and stuffed in a suitcase, friends and relatives have said in recent days in explaining his long struggle with mental illness). But if we don't push lawmakers to invest resources toward addressing homelessness, we will pay with public safety, educational gaps and lost human potential.
After the video of Neely emerged, Jesse Rabinowitz tweeted that he was "heartbroken." Rabinowitz, the senior manager for policy and advocacy at Miriam's Kitchen and manager of The Way Home Campaign, which aims to end chronic homelessness in D.C., also noted the other ways unhoused people die.
"And also, not funding housing kills," he wrote. "Evicting encampments kills. Policy choices that allow homelessness to exist kill. May their memories compel us to do better."
May their memories compel us to do better. Most of us weren't there on the train that day with Neely. We couldn't step up or speak up then. But we are bystanders, every day.