The Democratic candidates for New York mayor clashed at Wednesday night’s debate over how to help those who showed signs of untreated mental illness on city streets.
Andrew Yang said it was crucial to get people with untreated mental illness off the streets, citing a series of attacks against Asian New Yorkers, many of which were committed by mentally ill people. He said the city should be able to identify people who need help — like people who are violent or unconscious — and get them medication, even in some cases where they don’t ask for help.
“Yes, mentally ill people have rights, but you know who else have rights? We do: the people and families of the city,” Mr. Yang said. “We have the right to walk the street and not fear for our safety because a mentally ill person is going to lash out at us.”
With the comments, Mr. Yang doubled down on remarks he had made earlier in the evening, when he was asked about people experiencing homelessness.
“Mentally ill homeless men are changing the character of our neighborhoods,” he said, adding that families were leaving New York City because of their presence on the streets.
“We’re talking about the hundreds of mentally ill people we see around us every day on the streets and the subways,” he said. “We need to get them off of our streets and our subways into a better environment.”
Together, the comments reflected the aggressive rhetoric Mr. Yang has been using in recent days when talking about social issues and crime.
His comments drew fire on social media from people who said they lacked empathy or understanding, and stigmatized people with mental illness.
Many pointed out research that shows people with mental serious mental illness are far more likely to be victims of violent crime — not perpetrators.
In a tweet on Thursday night, Mr. Yang responded to some of the criticism, saying he has “been an advocate for mental health and will continue” and that he had received counseling as a young person.
“Full context here was mental illness is behind half of anti-Asian hate crimes,” he said. “We need to get them compassionate comprehensive care — and not let them languish on our streets.”
His rhetoric also contrasted with the other candidates who emphasized reform of the way the city addresses mental health.
Ray McGuire said he would make more use of Kendra’s law, which allows courts to compel those arrested to undergo psychiatric treatment when they are believed to be dangerous.
Scott Stringer noted that a large percentage of 911 calls are not for crimes in progress but to report people with mental health issues. Last year, the police responded to 154,045 calls involving people deemed emotionally disturbed. Mr. Stringer recommended the city adopt a system used in Eugene, Ore., where mental health professionals respond to emergency calls.
Dianne Morales made the issue personal. “Everyone on this stage has someone in their lives who has a mental health problem, if not themselves,” she said, adding that her daughter had “had mental health needs for years.” She said that despite being “someone who’s connected,” she had struggled to get her daughter appropriate care.
Ms. Morales said the city needed to create “integrated community health clinics” where people could get access a “continuum of care ranging from peer counseling to much more intensive treatment.”
Joseph Goldstein contributed reporting.