In May, Hope Partnership’s CEO shared an email with the community about her outrage over the death of Jordan Neely, a 30-year-old homeless man who was choked to death on a New York City subway train by 24-year-old Daniel Penny.  Penny has since been indicted by a Manhattan grand jury and the incident has set off a national debate. This is Reverend Mary Lee Downey’s message.

I am outraged.

Jordan Neely was killed on a New York subway this month. He was 30 years old with a documented history of mental illness. He had been shouting that he was hungry and thirsty, that he didn’t care if he lived or died. He was clearly in need of clinical intervention. But he wasn’t given medical care. He was put

in a chokehold by another passenger and was strangled to death. His killing once again shows how desperately we need to improve the ways we offer and deliver mental health services, especially to individuals who are unsheltered. The trauma of Jordan’s childhood is devastating: his mother was murdered in a terrible act of domestic violence, and he was bounced around the foster system. As a society, we should have surrounded this young man with love and care in an environment where he could heal. Instead, he was killed on a subway while his neighbors watched. This should never have happened anywhere in our country. Mental illness, hunger, and homelessness should never be a death sentence.

Can you understand the outrage? Can you feel it?

Last month, I led a breakout session at the Florida Blue Foundation’s Community Health Symposium. The session was called “Healing Homelessness: Forging Partnerships to Improve Outcomes.” My co-presenter was Bakari Burns, Orlando commissioner and head of the Healthcare Center for the Homeless. We discussed the work of our organizations as well as the intersections of homelessness and mental illness. We often hear that mental health is one of the main causes of homelessness, but that simply isn’t true. Studies have failed to show a causal relationship between homelessness and mental health.

Here’s what is actually true: the experience of homelessness is traumatic, and trauma changes the way that the human brain functions, especially in its developmental stages. When we focus our attention on mental illness, we neglect the systemic barriers and institutional flaws that push our neighbors into unsheltered situations in the first place. When we lose our compassion for those in distress, it becomes easier to view them as threats. When we view persons as ‘other’ and not as a connected humanity, we forget that, as Mother Teresa once said,that we belong to each other.|

Too often, our law enforcement officers are dispatched to respond to people who actually need medical treatment. Our society views those experiencing poverty and homelessness as criminals when the actual crime is that we tolerate poverty and homelessness in our midst.

Donald Whitehead of the National Coalition for the Homeless said it well,

“The killing of Jordan Neely is the direct result of the dehumanization of people experiencing homelessness and mental health issues. Criminalization policies that turn the general public into street level judges, jury, and executioner have tragic consequences.”

From a faith-based viewpoint, and as a pastor, I hear people complain about how we don’t focus on God enough in our communities, and I’m baffled. Because what I see is people missing God in their midst – and letting the image of God be murdered on the street without any kind of outrage or care.

We should be outraged.

The world can be better than this.

It doesn’t have to be like this.

We can do better than this.

Yes, it will take years for us to build the systems we need to provide adequate mental health in this country. In the meantime, we must all do the work of seeing our neighbors with empathy instead of fear and disgust. Jordan deserved to not be hungry and thirsty in this nation of abundance. He deserved a safe place to call home. And so do you. And so do I. And so do all of our neighbors here in Central Florida.

We cannot look away, we cannot continue to let apathy be our constant companion. We must sit in the grief and anger of what has happened. And it starts with outrage.

Reverend Mary Lee Downey

CEO, Hope Partnership

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