NEW YORK - It's dawn on 31st Street and 7th Avenue. Two men are passed out in the middle of the sidewalk. Pedestrians have to weave around them to get across the street. Walk down 31st Street, and you see homeless person after homeless person. A line stretches all the way down to 6th Avenue. People wait here to get breakfast at a nearby church. Over on 5th Avenue, this man wakes up on a park bench outside of Central Park.
It's a common sight in New York City, but those who live here feel like it's happening more and more. In a new Quinnipiac poll, 53 percent of those questioned believe there are more people living on the streets. Many of them are mentally ill.
Back in May, a 30 year-old homeless man named David Baril swung a hammer randomly at people's heads around Manhattan. When approached by two police officers, he broke out the hammer again, striking one of the officers. He was shot and killed by police. The NYPD later said Baril struggled with schizophrenia.
Census data from the Department of Homeless Services shows that an average of nearly 56,000 homeless live in shelters and an average of 3,100 people live on the streets. DHS tells FOX 5, approximately 1,000 of the unsheltered homeless are mentally ill. One third of them have been identified as violent aggressors, which accounts for less than 5 percent of the total street homeless population.
The Department of Homeless Services has an annual budget of roughly $1 billion. Early in August, Mayor Bill de Blasio unveiled a new plan to deal with the mentally ill homeless, calling it NYC Safe. The $22 million effort will help get the mentally ill homeless the medication they need. Street teams and social workers will work with the NYPD to help get people proper shelter.
The plan comes after the mayor been under fire recently for an apparently growing homeless population.
In an email, the mayor's press secretary blamed the previous administration, telling FOX 5: "Under Mayor Bloomberg, homeless funds slashed dramatically. (The) number of homeless tripled under Mayor Bloomberg."
We asked the Department of Homeless Services to provide census data for the homeless count during the Bloomberg administration. A spokesperson told us the department wasn't allowed to release those numbers. However, it did provide data of unsheltered homeless. Since 2012, the numbers all hovered over 3,000. The most dramatic increase happened from 2013 to 2014, the first year de Blasio took office.
Randy Mastro, former deputy mayor and top official in former Mayor Rudy Giuliani's administration, says Bloomberg is not to blame.
"I don't think that's a fair criticism for him to say the prior administration in some way dropped the ball in this area," Mastro said. "The prior administration even went about doing a census of the homeless population and acknowledged that the homeless population had grown and put more resources into programs for the homeless."
Mastro says de Blasio's new approach was much like Giuliani's. But the execution could be different.
"Past administrations proactively had both police and social service agencies working on getting the homeless off the streets and into housing and social services that they so desperately needed," Mastro said.