By Amanda Woods
“Susan,” known for her spitting, coughing and screaming on the Upper East Side, isn’t the first homeless person showing signs of mental illness who has raised public concern in the city.
Rafael Rodriguez, a homeless man, stabbed and killed a woman in the middle of the day on the corner of Lafayette and Broome streets in SoHo, according to a February 1991 article in the West Side Spirit. His crime went unnoticed by police until the next day, when reports surfaced that Rodriguez has menaced other passersby with a knife later that afternoon.
A year later, in February 1992, the West Side Spirit reported that Peter S. (a name created by the paper), a homeless man with a history of mental disorders, was terrorizing Upper West Side residents—in one case pushing a girl in front of a moving truck. In another, he threatened local resident Lisa Lehr as she exited her parked car, saying he was going to kill her. Once she was inside her apartment, he smashed her car with a slab of marble.
He also reportedly menaced people outside of a Pizzeria Uno, naked, threatening to set their children and dogs on fire.
Lehr told the Spirit that she spoke a police officer who said Peter S. was “too psychotic for the mental hospital.” 911 dispatchers, workers at the city’s emergency psychiatric wards and admitters at the veterans’ hospital all knew him—but none wanted to deal with him. No one agreed on whose job it was to handle the man. Police repeatedly picked him up and brought him to Bellevue, though only days later he was discharged.
“It was like a tennis match,” Lehr told the Sprit. “None of them wanted to deal with him.”
When Peter S. was hospitalized, he was docile and reasoned with doctors, telling them that as a citizen and a Vietnam War veteran, he deserved to be free.
The 1991 story explains that some consider the “imminent danger to oneself and others” wording in the New York State Mental Health Law to be vague, favoring the rights of the mentally ill over local residents who are frightened about their behavior.
“We want to take decisions about the medical treatment of people out of the court system and into the hands of doctors, family members and advocates for the mentally ill,” said D.J. Jaffe, the then-spokesperson for the Alliance for the Mentally Ill.
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