From a reader:
Jonah, Yes, it’s true, I was a PhD candidate in psych at Columbia during the 1970′s, though I’d rather that not be widely known. I worked only two years in the profession before finding more grown-up things to do. My recollection is that the release of these badly-behaved folks from the hospitals and institutions wasn’t, per se, the bad deed – it was, rather, the transfer to the infamous SRO hotels. This created concentrations of these people in buildings where they drove each other nuts. Sort of like cloning the institutional environment but with no attendants. It was pretty bad, though, on the Upper West Side during that time. We all have anecdotes, right?
Me: Yeah, the SRO (Single Room Occupancy) thing was a bad idea. Basically they took old hotels and residential buildings and warehoused crazies in neighborhoods like mine. But I think this was just one aspect of a cascading series of stupid decisions. Another was that the laws for forced commitment were absurd or non-existent. So crazy people could avoid arrest on grounds that they were insane (or simply because cops didn’t want to do the paperwork), but they couldn’t be put in mental hospitals without their consent. A great book on all of this is Madness in the Streets which covers the entire sorry episode in New York’s history very well.