America Has Decided That Homeless People Aren't People
Police in NYC during a sweep of homeless people. Image: 
Andrew Lichtenstein
 / Contributor via Getty Images

America Has Decided That Homeless People Aren't People

The killing of Jordan Neely is the endpoint of systematically demonizing and excluding people on the street from society and human dignity.

Last week, when 30-year-old Jordan Neely was choked to death on an F-train in New York City, video circulated showing the hands of passengers holding him down as Neely, who was homeless at the time, flailed his arms and legs. Neely had been yelling at passengers, though no video has circulated about the events leading up to his killing. He reportedly said that he was “fed up,” hungry, and thirsty, a witness named Juan Alberto Vasquez told CNN. The city medical examiner ruled his death a homicide. The Manhattan District Attorney is investigating the killing but has not yet pressed charges.


In the wake of Neely’s killing, some seemed to identify immediately with his killer. They suggested that Neely, who had not harmed anyone, was a sign of a city that had lost control. Attorneys for his killer, a 24-year-old former marine named Daniel Penny, released a statement on Friday framing him as a hero who intervened to protect bystanders, and he was valorized by some as if he had safely landed a hijacked plane.

Neely’s killing is, among other things, a consequence of the political rhetoric around homelessness: NYC, like many cities across the country, has turned itself inside out to make homelessness prolonged and painful in an effort not to protect the lives of people who are unhoused but to placate those who feel unsafe looking at people who are unhoused. The U.S.’s legal system, its housing system, its benches and public places, its retail stores, sidewalks, public transit systems, even its shelter systems are organized around the idea that homelessness should be painful, invisible, and easily ignorable. People without homes are regularly called “blight.” Or they’re solely blamed for the opioid crisis and called “zombies.” Frequently, they’re used as punching bags by political candidates.


This approach perpetuates homelessness by shifting resources to provably unhelpful responses, like policing, homeless sweeps, or shuffling people into crowded and violent shelters. And its logical conclusion is vigilantism. 

Neely’s killing peeled back the layers on a narrative New Yorkers often tell themselves: that New Yorkers look out for each other and strangers are quick to come to someone’s aid if they’re hurting. If someone faints in public or suffers a fall, some New Yorkers say, strangers will crowd around to aid them. 

The urbanist Jane Jacob said of public safety: “No amount of policing can enforce civilization where the normal, casual enforcement of it has broken down.” But what Jacobs’ words elide is that fissures of class and race determine what is acceptable as “civilization” and whose role it is to enforce it, and that public policy plays a role in cementing those roles. 

Crowds of New Yorkers do often intervene when someone is injured. But this community care is not universal and does not extend equally across race and class lines. If someone faints or appears to be in crisis, it's less likely that New Yorkers will flock to their aid if they appear outwardly to be unhoused, severely mentally ill, or if they appear to have a substance abuse issue. It’s not uncommon for someone to be unconscious, splayed out on the sidewalk in Times Square as hundreds of pedestrians step over them. And often the only person who approaches them or tries to intervene is another unhoused person. This is true in other cities as well: in the Bay Area, it is unhoused people who are often the ones administering naloxone to another unhoused person suffering an overdose.


Neely had been a Michael Jackson impersonator on the subways since at least 2009; people who knew him told Gothamist he struggled with mental health problems. In 2012, he testified in the prosecution of his mother’s killer, and her death had haunted him for years, friends told Gothamist.

The image of Neely's death had a clear racial dimension: video of a white man strangling an unhoused Black man as he flailed for life, being held down by other passengers. This dynamic is clearly seen in the statistics on homelessness: more than 40 percent of the country’s homeless population are Black despite making up 13 percent of the population. In NYC, 56 percent of heads of household in the city’s shelters are Black, despite making up 23 percent of the population.

People pushing their elected officials to target homeless people frame the homelessness crisis as something they must endure by simply having to look at, be in proximity to, or witness the unalloyed anguish of someone whose inability to pay rent has led their health and sanity to deteriorate. And criminalization keeps people homeless—it’s much harder to secure housing with a criminal record. It also retroactively justifies the treatment of people whose lives are forcibly lived in public. 


Neely was almost immediately framed as having instigated his own death. A New York Daily News headline that ran on Friday said “ERRATIC AND ‘READY TO DIE’” and printed underneath, “Neely’s rap sheet includes felony assault,” as if this could have been possibly known by his killer, and as if a felony assault was more alarming than, say, a homicide carried out by a former marine. 

New York City’s mayor and the state’s governor, who have tied their reputation to increasing the vaguely-defined feeling of safety that people get on the subway, were alternately vague or quick to deflect blame. When asked about the killing on Wednesday, Governor Hochul initially said, "People who are homeless in our subways, many of them in the throes of mental health episodes, and that's what I believe were some of the factors involved here. There's consequences for behavior." It was not clear who was deserving of consequences, in Hochul’s view, but many interpreted it to be Neely.

On Thursday, Governor Hochul tried to strike a different tone, saying, ​​"I do want to acknowledge how horrific it was to view a video of Jordan Neely being killed for being a passenger on our subway trains. And so our hearts go out to his family. I’m really pleased that the district attorney is looking into this matter. As I said, there had to be consequences.” After apparently viewing the video, she said, “the video of three individuals holding him down until the last breath was snuffed out of him, I would say it was a very extreme response.”


Mayor Eric Adams is more hesitant to denounce Neely’s killing.“There’s a lot we don’t know about what happened here, so I’m going to refrain from commenting further,” Mayor Eric Adams said in a statement to Gothamist. “However,” he added in his statement, “we do know that there were serious mental health issues in play here, which is why our administration has made record investments in providing care to those who need it and getting people off the streets and the subways.” In a CNN interview, Adams called comptroller Brad Lander and others “irresponsible” for labeling the man who killed Neely a vigilante and calling his killing a lynching. 

When asked during the same interview whether it was right to intervene, Adams, a former transit cop, told interviewer Abby Phillip of CNN: “We have so many cases where passengers assist other riders. And we don't know exactly what happened here,” he said.

Adams has been intentionally provocative on the issue of houselessness: he made a rhetorical show of increasing sweeps of encampments, though they have more or less proceeded at the same pace as under his predecessor, who made 9,600 sweeps during his tenure. In November, he instructed police and medical workers that they can involuntarily detain people who appear mentally ill and homeless, though so far it hasn’t led to more people being taken to the hospital.


The statement released by Daniel Penny’s lawyers seemed to mostly reflect Adams’ perspective, pointing to the mental health crisis as the real culprit. They also presented Penny’s actions as a group attempt to maintain order and safety: “Daniel, with the help of others, acted to protect themselves, until help arrived,” they wrote.

The idea that visible homelessness means public order is breaking down, with an attendant rise in violent crime, is a powerful narrative being pushed by right-wingers and the wealthy, but Democratic mayors and civic leaders also participate in this rhetoric. Predictably, vigilantism has become normalized across the country. 

There have been a few high-profile cases just in the last few weeks where these violent fantasies are on full display. In San Francisco, a businessman named Don Carmigniani claimed to have been assaulted by an unhoused person wielding a metal pipe on April 5, and a 24-year old man named Garrett Doty was arrested for it.  


During the criminal case against Carmigniani’s assailant, video was released showing Carmigniani moments earlier approaching Doty while he was lying on the sidewalk and appearing to spray him with bear spray before Doty, startled, gets up and is confronted by Carmigniani, who a third party witness said was threatening the unhoused man. Based on police reports, defense attorneys alleged that Carmiginiani was regularly spraying houseless people with bear spray. Prosecutors later told the 52-year-old Carmigniani that they were dropping charges against Doty.

When tech executive Bob Lee was murdered in April, tech executives including Elon Musk blamed the killing on out of control violent crime. (According to Mission Local, violent crime in San Francisco is still near historic lows.). When police arrested a suspect, it turned out to be another tech executive, Nima Momeni, who had allegedly stabbed Lee. 

The rush of some in the tech sector to cast blame made sense, as the industry is complicit in this crisis: aside from causing rents to spike and exacerbating the homelessness crisis in the Bay Area, the Citizen app enables vigilantism,  and NextDoor is a cesspool of NIMBYism and anti-homeless rhetoric, 


Public camping bans have sprung up independently all over the country, and a single conservative think tank headed by a co-founder of surveillance tech company Palantir  has successfully made it a felony to sleep outdoors  in multiple states.

Amid this anti-homeless panic, elected officials of major cities have to promise to their constituents that they are going to drastically reduce public homelessness, which usually means using police to forcibly move people around. Interviews with 126 mayors across the country by researchers at Boston University revealed that they felt they were held accountable for the crisis but felt they were ill-equipped to deal with it, due to lack of funding and lack of public support. For this reason, they typically resort to policing, over which they have more control than housing. 

When addressing unsheltered homelessness, mayors almost always try to thread the needle with rhetoric of care and compassion; people don’t want to witness homelessness, and no one wants to sleep outdoors, so everyone has the same goal, the logic goes. But their strategies almost always affirm their belief that the real issue, the one for which they will be politically liable, is that people have to witness public homelessness, not that they have to endure it firsthand.

In Los Angeles, Mayor Karen Bass began an initiative called “Inside Safe” in an attempt to clear encampments and place people in temporary hotels. But with an urgency to clear the camps quickly to meet a self-imposed quota, Bass has already stoked distrust among  unhoused residents due to  broken promises and scared some away from accepting city services

It is not a good use of energy to argue with people making bad faith arguments or spreading every conceivable fiction to blame someone for their own killing. But as with any action seeking to harm the most marginalized, it’s worth noting that the effort to invert all of society in effort to inflict pain on its most vulnerable members  will, eventually, bring everyone misery. 

If legal and moral arguments can deputize individuals to attack anyone in a mental health crisis, the victim will, eventually, be a neighbor, as 1 in 5 Americans have mental health problems. If an inability to pay rent can result in a loss of control and carceral repercussions, that is generally bad news for most Americans, most of whom are rent-burdened. If homeless people can’t lie down in public then neither can anyone with a home. And if your primary concern is having to witness someone’s outburst on a train rather than the safety of the person experiencing that outburst, you may be pushing for policies that will exacerbate the problem.

About 36 percent of Americans are renters. More than 2 in 3 Americans worry they don’t have enough savings to cover a month of living expenses. The average social security disability payment is below the national average rent. It would make more sense for tenants to build solidarity with people who are unhoused rather than cast them as opposition. Some are taking this approach, including groups like LA Tenants Union and the National Homeless Union.

Neely’s killing has already led to a regurgitation of staid culture war arguments and anger.  People should be angry.  We should be angry that so many are unhoused or on the verge of being unhoused, and that instead of organizing a society that affirms life, we’ve organized one that primes it to be extinguished.