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Jordan Neely's chokehold death points to the criminalization of homelessness, advocates say

A vigil on Monday to honor Jordan Neely's life. One person holds a sign reading: Justice for Jordan Neely.
A vigil on Monday to honor the life of Jordan Neely, who was killed after being held in a chokehold by another passenger on a New York City subway train. (Selcuk Acar/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Jordan Neely, a young Black man who was killed on a New York City subway train after being deemed a threat, grappled with both homelessness and mental health crises. Advocates say the criminalization of homelessness, and the public’s negative perception of people who experience living on the streets, may have acted as a precursor to his death.

“A disproportionate share of the homeless population is Black, and then you tie that into having a mental health problem, that's another layer,” Steve Berg, chief policy officer at the National Alliance to End Homelessness, told Yahoo News.

In 2022, the Department of Housing and Urban Development counted around 582,500 people experiencing homelessness in the U.S., with about 37% identifying as Black. According to SMI Adviser, a network of clinics that provides support for people with serious mental illness, 20% to 25% of the U.S. homeless population suffers from serious mental health issues.

“Having a mental illness is often a cause of homelessness, and the experience of being homeless makes it worse,” Berg explained. “So there are a lot of people who are trying to cope with that situation of not having a place to live. One of the things that makes it hard is that you’re always in danger. And this was an example of the kind of danger that people are in.”

Jordan Neely’s death

Neely is held in a chokehold by a fellow subway passenger on May 1.
Neely is held in a chokehold by a fellow subway passenger on May 1. (Juan Alberto Vázquez/via Reuters)

The 30-year-old Neely died on May 1 from “compression of [the] neck” after a confrontation with subway passenger Daniel Penny, a 24-year-old ex-Marine. Passengers told police that Neely had been acting in a “hostile and erratic manner,” throwing garbage at commuters, screaming for food and something to drink.

Juan Alberto Vázquez, a witness who recorded the incident on video, said Neely screamed, “I’m tired already. I don’t care if I go to jail and get locked up. I’m ready to die.”

Penny then placed Neely in a chokehold for a reported 15 minutes, while two other men pinned him down by his arms and legs.

Police took Penny into custody for questioning after the incident, but he was released without charges. The city’s medical examiner ruled Neely’s death a homicide, and the Manhattan district attorney's office said the killing remains under investigation.

A history of systematic failures

Neely in New York's Times Square in 2009 before going to see the Michael Jackson movie
Neely in New York's Times Square in 2009 before going to see the Michael Jackson movie "This Is It." (Andrew Savulich/New York Daily News/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

According to his aunt Carolyn Neely, Jordan had spiraled into “a complete mess” at the age of 14 in 2007 after his mother, Christie, was reportedly strangled to death, stuffed into a suitcase and then discarded on a highway by her boyfriend.

“It had a big impact on him,” Carolyn Neely, who described herself as his closest relative, told the New York Post. “He developed depression and it grew and became more serious. He was schizophrenic, PTSD. Doctors knew his condition and he needed to be treated for that.” His aunt believes the “system just failed him” after unsuccessful attempts to get judges and doctors to assist her nephew in getting the treatment he needed.

Neely was placed in a foster home, but eventually aged out of the system and became homeless in New York City. As a means of survival, he became a staple on subway platforms and trains as a Michael Jackson impersonator. He also racked up dozens of charges for crimes like assault, indecent exposure and drugs.

“In a place like New York City, it is illegal to be homeless,” Krys Cerisier, the homeless union organizer at VOCAL-NY, an advocacy group for low-income people, told Yahoo News. “If you’re outside, that’s loitering. You’re not supposed to be on the train. It’s really easy to get picked up by the police if you’re in the streets constantly as a Black man in New York.”

New York Mayor Eric Adams has drawn sharp criticism for how Neely’s case has been handled.

“People who are dealing with mental health illness should get the help they need and not live on the train,” Adams said of the Neely incident during a May 4 press conference. “I'm going to continue to push on that.”

The former cop and state lawmaker has proposed to take on the city’s population of an estimated 75,000 experiencing homelessness and the issue of public safety, saying homelessness is a “cancerous sore.” In 2022, he rolled out a treatment plan to bar people who are homeless from the subway and for people deemed to be in “psychiatric crisis” to be involuntarily hospitalized by law enforcement and emergency medical workers.

Advocates like Cerisier have also called out systematic overlappings and “gaping holes” that leave people vulnerable to homelessness, such as broken foster care systems, a lack of government funding, landlord discrimination in the state’s emergency housing voucher system and understaffed Department of Homeless Services workers who face an insurmountable workload to secure housing and resources for people who need them.

“A lot of the safety net systems and institutions in New York City like the foster care system, the shelter system, the incarceration system, are meant to rehabilitate but are set up for failure,” Cerisier said. “But you have people who are in these shelters for years on end. Kids leave foster care with no place to live a lot of the time. So by the time we see Jordan Neely on that train, that's after years of failure to gain access to resources.”

Cerisier called out Adams and the city of New York for criminalizing homelessness and defunding social programs to provide resources to people experiencing housing and mental health crises. She said Neely could have avoided a mental breakdown had he had consistent access to basic needs, housing and mental health resources.

Neely “was yelling about not having food, water, shelter,” Cerisier said. “That is not a mental health crisis. That is the symptoms and effect of having a massive population of people who do not have access to housing that they will end up in all of our public spaces because there's nowhere else to go.

“These are very clear systematic failures that can be reflected on the way New York chooses to spread resources,” she explained. “That's why all of our social safety nets have been cut but the police have been funded. As a direct result, you're going to have more homeless people on the train and less resources to them.”

Public perception of homeless people with mental health crises

Demonstrators marching to New York City's Washington Square Park on May 5. One holds a sign reading: Housing is a human right.
Demonstrators marching to New York City's Washington Square Park on May 5. (Selcuk Acar/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

According to research by Invisible People, in 2020 around half of Americans said they were scared around homeless people, and about 47% believed people experiencing homelessness will cause crime in their neighborhoods, even though unsheltered homeless people are more likely to be crime victims.

In 2021, Invisible People found that 91% to 95% of Americans continued to support positive policy solutions like permanent supportive housing, overnight shelters, outreach services and expanded mental health services. But support dropped to 59% and 55%, respectively, for homeless housing or homeless shelters in their own neighborhoods.

Penny addressed Neely’s history of mental illness in a statement issued through his lawyers.

“Mr. Neely had a documented history of violent and erratic behavior, the apparent result of ongoing and untreated mental illness. When Mr. Neely began aggressively threatening Daniel Penny and the other passengers, Daniel, with the help of others, acted to protect themselves, until help arrived.

“For too long, those suffering from mental illness have been treated with indifference. We hope that out of this awful tragedy will come a new commitment by our elected officials to address the mental health crisis on our streets and subways.”

Neely’s family also released a statement, rebuking Penny’s lack of apology or regret, framing it as “a character assassination … in an effort to convince us Jordan’s life was ‘worthless.’

“The truth is, he knew nothing about Jordan’s history when he intentionally wrapped his arms around Jordan’s neck, and squeezed and kept squeezing. In the last paragraph, Daniel Penny suggests that the general public has shown ‘indifference’ for people like Jordan, but that term is more appropriately used to describe himself. It is clear he is the one who acted with indifference.”