NYC Council bill requiring mental health services in shelters tweaked to include remote option amid staffing concerns

Mental health services would be required in the city’s family homeless shelters under a bill passed by the City Council on Thursday — but the legislation got tweaked ahead of the vote to make remote therapy an acceptable form of care.

The original version of the bill, which was introduced last summer by Manhattan Councilman Erik Bottcher, would’ve mandated that in-person mental health counseling be provided at all city shelters housing families with children.

The finalized bill, though, includes a provision that permits telehealth to be part of the initiative.

Bottcher, a Democrat who represents a slice of Manhattan’s West Side, told the Daily News that the telehealth option got folded in because concerns emerged during negotiations with Mayor Adams’ administration about how the effort would be properly staffed if only in-person service was allowed.

The city has for years experienced a shortage of licensed social workers, and Bottcher’s bill would likely place additional burden on the nonprofit providers that’d be contracted to offer mental health counseling in family shelters.

An Adams spokeswoman did not comment on the staffing issue, but welcomed Bottcher’s legislation, which passed the Council by wide margins in an afternoon vote.

“It’s critical to invest in our mental health system so every New Yorker has access to the support they need, and this legislation will help us reach that goal,” the spokeswoman said.

Council Speaker Adrienne Adams acknowledged social worker staffing levels are troubling.

“We have a head count issue,” she told reporters at City Hall. She added that the Council and the Adams administration are working on recruitment programs to bring more social workers into public service.

Under Bottcher’s bill, the remote service will only be allowed in shelters where therapy sessions can take place in a confidential setting. The Department of Homeless Services must also supply the technology, like tablets or computers, necessary for the sessions.

The rollout of the initiative will be staggered.

The city’s 30 largest family shelters are expected to have on-site mental health services available by July 2024, according to the bill. Services at all remaining family shelters should be up and running by July 2025.

Christine Quinn, a former Council speaker who runs homeless shelter provider Win NYC, argued telehealth is an improvement to the legislation, as it will ensure greater access.

“Our original goal was to prevent clients from having to go somewhere because unless it’s on site it’s not going to happen,” said Quinn, who helped advocate for Bottcher’s bill. “Telehealth will help with that.”

Data backs up Quinn’s point.

A 2021 study by mental health professionals found that phone and video therapy is equally as successful in treating trauma, depression and other mental health conditions as in-person.

Mental health problems, meantime, are pervasive in the city’s shelter population.

Auditors with state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli’s office found last year that 3,022 out of 17,244 shelter residents they screened had diagnosed serious mental health issues.

“Our country, and our city, has devalued mental health care for way too long,” Bottcher said.