DO YOU remember Rebecca Smith? She is the former mental patient who died on the streets of New York last January after refusing the pleas of numerous social workers, policeman and psychiatrists to come in from the cold. Mrs. Smith refused adamantly to move from a cardboard box in which she had set up housekeeping on the sidewalk on West 17th Street. As New York City officials were going to court to secure her involuntary commitment to a mental institution, she died.
Social workers took a lot of abuse after that event, even though it was clear that a great effort had been made to rescue Mrs. Smith. But persons who appear to be mentally ill have civil rights too, and cannot be arbitrarily hustled into custody. It was the city's concern for Mrs. Smith's civil rights as well as her physical safety that took time and caused a storm of criticism.
Tuesday morning's paper brought us a story about another of New York's street people, Joseph Cruz, who had taken up residence on a traffic island in the middle of New York's East River Drive. Mr. Cruz refused to move from his makeshift home on the highway and has become something of a local folk hero because of his independent, if somewhat unorthodox, position. He rejected the city's offer to place him in his choice of any one of a number of residences for homeless people. He refused even to speak to his daughter, who offered to take him into her home. Like Mrs. Smith, he said he wanted to be left alone, not "saved" by those whose profession it is to care for the homeless and the sick.
But this time, perhaps remembering the public outcry after Mrs. Smith's similar wishes were honored for too long, the city has moved more quickly. Social workers were especially concerned by Mr. Cruz's suicide threats, his drinking and his nocturnal wanderings amid the traffic on East River Drive. On Friday, he was taken to Bellevue for observation, and Monday morning, as required by law, he was brought to court for a hearing. After listening to a great deal of expert testimony, a State Supreme Court justice ordered that Mr. Cruz should remain in the hospital for five days' observation. Columnist Jimmy Breslin has moved onto Mr. Cruz's traffic island in his absence and proposes to stay there in order to protest what he considers to be the injustice of the city's attempt to deal with the situation.
It's all a bit bizarre. Is it chic in summer to champion the rights of the mentally ill to live on the streets but reprehensible in winter to allow it? Aren't these difficult legal and tragic personal questions best considered without the media hype-- complete with gourmet baskets flown in on the Concorde from London's Fortnum and Mason -- that surrounds Mr. Cruz? Courts and social service agencies have a difficult time balancing conflicting claims for independence and security in these cases. To be fair, the standards they set should not be subject to seasonal adjustment.