ARE FOLKS in the Big Apple rotten to the core? Some people believe that the citizens of New York, by their neglect or by their failure to give enough support to social service programs, were responsible for the death last month of a woman named Rebecca Smith. They are wrong, and the story merits attention because there is a real problem here which has not been discussed: the problem of helping people who do not wish to be helped.
Rebecca Smith was a former mental patient who was cared for by the state of New York for most of her adult life. After having been institutionalized for many years, she chose, voluntarily, to leave the hospital. She was not pushed out, nor did budget cuts make it impossible for her to stay. She simply did not want to live in a hospital any longer. At first she managed to live independently with the help of social workers and public assistance. But years of institutionalized living made it difficult for her to adjust to the outside world, and she began to withdraw and refuse help from the social workers. In May, she took a blanket and a few meager possessions and moved into a cardboard box on a sidewalk on West 17th Street. She survived the worst of January's bitter cold, but died on the street at the end of the month.
Who tried to help her? Human Resources officials in New York estimate that in the last weeks of her life at least 50 people pleaded with her to accept food and shelter. The Red Cross visited. City social workers offered help. The police came. The state of New York sent a mobile van to transport her to a shelter. A psychiatrist tried to persuade her to come in from the cold. Rebecca Smith said no to them all.
The city of New York has no shortage of money for its shelter program. Beds are provided for thousands of people every night, and all comers are accepted. But in some cases, where help is available and help is offered, help is refused. Because of situations like this, New York has a new law that allows the city to go to court and present psychiatric evidence that a person is mentally ill--though not necessarily so ill as to be committed to a mental institution against his will--and is endangering his own life by refusing to accept help. If a court agrees, the person can be taken into custody for 72 hours. While obtaining psychiatric evidence and a court order takes time, these are thought to be necessary safeguards to protect the civil liberties of even the most eccentric of our fellow citizens.
City officials say that before the case of Rebecca Smith they never actually had to go into court. Persuasion had always worked. But as it became clear that persuasion would not work in this case, a psychiatrist was sent out to the street corner to interview Mrs. Smith. Lawyers prepared the papers for court, but she died hours before they were filed.
Social workers now believe that they wasted too much time trying to persuade Rebecca Smith to accept help. In the future, they will begin the legal process without delay and let the courts worry about safeguarding civil liberties. That's a good idea, but the initial decision to try to persuade Rebecca Smith before taking her into custody was understandable. Those who tried to protect her rights as well as her welfare do not deserve the harsh criticism they have received.