Staff Ed: One man strangled Jordan Neely, but it was all of us who failed him.

A starving man sits on the curb of a busy street, holding a sign, begging for food. Someone passes by — in their right hand, a sign meant for the protest down the street to end homelessness and to get justice for a dead man. In their left: wads of cash in a wallet. Just like every other day, the person walks on without a glance to the pained man, who is only thinking that in order to get help and be recognized as human, he must die first.

Chaos erupted at around 2 p.m. on May 1 when homeless street performer and ex-convict Jordan Neely boarded the F train in New York City, fed up with living on the streets, Neely began “aggressively screaming” at passengers and took off his jacket, throwing it to the side, as seen in the four-minute video captured by freelance journalist Juan Alberto Vazquez, who was at the scene. Just seven minutes later, Neely was put in a chokehold and suffocated by 24-year-old veteran Daniel Penny. On May 5, Penny faced a charge of second-degree manslaughter at his arraignment, which can lead to up to 15 years in prison. Penny has pleaded not guilty to the charge. While putting Penny behind bars for his crime may result in some form of justice for Neely, gaining true justice goes deeper than advocating for only one man. The drastic numbers of remaining unhoused people and the lack of decency granted them from the very people who claim they are trying to advocate for the unhoused shows that the U.S. is far from making the country a healthier and safer place.

With a homeless population of over half a million individuals in the U.S., demographics in the homeless population are increasing yearly. As of 2022, nearly 70,000 homeless people were from New York alone. With such a high percentage of people without roofs over their heads, it is ignorant of those who have the ability to make a difference to stay uneducated — a point that must be changed as soon as possible.

From birth, children are often taught to disregard homeless people out of fear, causing many to be dissuaded from donating as little as a dollar to someone on the streets. Much of this influence comes from the belief that most homeless people are dangerous and mentally unwell. While it is certainly reasonable to be more cautious in areas with unhoused people, it is immoral to automatically assume that every individual is a walking hazard. Neely, generally referred to as “a talented Black man who [loved] to dance” and a “non-aggressive person with… a beautiful smile” from fans of his street performances, was still tainted by his criminal record and past run-ins with the law. While it is true that Neely had been arrested several times for minor crimes like trespassing, and had been issued an arrest warrant for felony assault, none of these come close to the real crime committed when he was held down by two other bystanders and choked to death by Penny. Still, news outlets like NBC News and New York Magazine make a point to insinuate that Neely was the source of the problem as they use terms like “lashing out” and “aggressive threatening,” as well as glorify the assailant instead of shaming him.

As more unhoused people are killed, the call for a social awakening grows louder. Despite marches and protests, there are never meaningful efforts being made; unhoused people are still begging on the streets and nobody is reaching out to offer support. Are all of these efforts only made out of guilt for the inherently flawed way we treat homeless people, remaining ignorant and never lending a helping hand until after someone has been killed? After all, it is far easier to call for change when there is a dead victim rather than a living one.

With this in mind, there are changes that need to be made to support unhoused people who need help. While there are community clinics and public hospitals that provide preventative care for those without insurance, many of these facilities have poor sanitation, such as lack of ventilation in condensed areas of up to 300 sick residents, that may cause further health problems for their occupants.

Although it is clear that the vast issues regarding poverty and homelessness are not expected to be eradicated or reduced anytime soon, there are steps that we as students can take in order to give every Neely a better chance at not just surviving, but living.

By increasing mental health awareness and education, including going to protests and working with people firsthand in shelters and food banks, there may just be another Neely that gets off the train without a body bag.
Read on Issuu.

18 thoughts on “Staff Ed: One man strangled Jordan Neely, but it was all of us who failed him.

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