No one talks about Liliana Llanos Sagbaicela anymore. Few remember why she catapulted into the news with a story that made all of us worry.
On a Thursday morning in 2020, Sagbaicela, 40, was pushed onto the tracks of a New York City subway station by a mentally deranged homeless man as a train rolled in.
The incident set off a familiar debate: What can the world's most powerful nation do about the increasing numbers of mentally ill homeless people who had taken up residence in all manner of public spaces, not just in New York City's subways but in numerous spots in other communities too?
The debate lasted about a week.
Then we forgot about the incident and went back to our collective habits of trying not to make eye contact with the homeless in the subways or as they take refuge in Newark's Penn Station or bus depots and other places, including benches, parks and swaths of our sidewalks.
It’s now worth returning to Sagbaicela’s story — and our reactions — after another deranged homeless guy last week allegedly pushed yet another 40-year-old woman, Michelle Alyssa Go, onto the subway tracks in New York City.
The difference is that Liliana Llanos Sagbaicela survived her attack in November 2020. Last week, Michelle Alyssa Go did not. She was crushed by the train, her bubbly personality and her budding career as the managing director of a Manhattan consulting firm snuffed out in an instant.
Another death, another round of suggested solutions
Go’s death, reportedly at the hands of a 61-year-old homeless man with a history of mental problems and a long criminal record of violence, has once again placed a political, social and moral spotlight on homelessness and why our savvy, technologically smart society continues to allow people who can’t tie their shoes to set up homes in a vast array of train stations, bus depots, subways and other public spaces.
As outrage and sorrow spread over Go’s death, political figures lined up as they always do with solutions. New York Gov. Kathy Hochul and New York Mayor Eric Adams again pledged to make safety in the subways a priority and promised to assign teams of cops and social workers to approach homeless people in the subways and, after what we all hope would be a logical conversation, convince them to move into taxpayer-funded shelters.
Few people expect much of a change with this approach and the reason is obvious: Our nation won’t draw the line and proclaim that public spaces should not be turned into homeless encampments. It’s been this way since the 1970s when state governments across America closed down mental institutions in favor of so-called “community based treatment centers.” As a result, hordes of homeless people now live on the streets or anyplace else they can find a warm spot. Last year, New York City estimated that more than 1,000 homeless people had turned to the subways for shelter.
This is wrong. It's wrong to treat the homeless this way. It's also wrong to force the rest of us to accept this sordid reality.
Such a statement is politically incorrect. So be it. Progressives will likely tell me that homeless people are “people too” and “have rights.”
But the issue is not the rights of homeless people. The problem is that we refuse to address our moral obligation as a nation to help the mentally ill homeless by removing them from subways and other public spaces and placing them — forcibly, if necessary — in humane institutions where they can be helped.
So far, America has refused to take this step. With few exceptions — former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani being the most notable when he ran the city during the 1990s before slipping badly in recent years — most political leaders from both parties passively ignore homelessness and its occasional outrageous crimes because they don't want to rock the boat or spend the necessary money to fix the nation's broken mental health system.
And so, the homeless flock to public spaces.
New York City’s subways are just one example of how the problem has festered. Another is Newark’s Penn Station, a major hub for Amtrak, NJ Transit trains and buses and the PATH rail system.
On any given morning, as commuters and other travelers enter the station, they encounter dozens of homeless people sprawled on benches. Other homeless people crowd into the bathrooms to wash up. Still others lurk by the stores that sell coffee, asking for spare change.
Such a scene is repeated at any number of train and bus stations across the nation. In some cases, the situation is even worse than New York City or Newark. At Washington D.C.’s Union Station — another confluence of subways, Amtrak trains and commuter lines — the homeless not only lurk inside the majestic building but they have set up a tent encampment in a park outside the main doors by a driveway where taxis line up. On a recent morning, more than a dozen tents were housing the homeless — all this just a few blocks from the U.S. Capitol.
That tent encampment outside Union Station is nothing compared with the blocks of homeless tents and other structures that line streets in Los Angeles and San Francisco. In San Francisco, the problem has become so overwhelming that the city’s progressive Democratic mayor recently declared an emergency and said the city needed to restore order.
The announcement was a major news story. Then, as with so many accounts of America’s homeless problem, it faded into the shadows.
Why did Michelle Alyssa Go die?
It was the same story with Liliana Llanos Sagbaicela’s near-death experience on the subway tracks at Manhattan’s Union Square Station in November 2020. For a day or two, she was in the news as New York City wrung its collective hands and pondered what to do about the homeless turning subways, bus and train stations — indeed, all manner of public spaces — into their "homes."
A crew from a local TV station even knocked on the door of Sagbaicela's apartment in Brooklyn to interview her. As with other victims of homeless crime, she told a familiar story.
She had been waiting on the subway platform and passed the time by listening to a recording on headphones. In Sagbaicela's case, she happened to be listening to a Bible verse. (Note the irony.) But she might have been trying to drown out the city's noise by listening to music or a cooking podcast. In other words, she was doing what so many of us do when we step onto a subway or train or bus. She was just trying to relax amid the cacophony of city life.
Sagbaicela says she did not notice the homeless man behind her. Witnesses later said he had been mumbling to himself — definitely a sign of trouble among the homeless. But as so often happens in these situations, no one confronted him. No one called the cops. (If you see something, say something? Not this time.) Certainly the police on the subway platform did not approach him. The collective behavior could be summed up with this phrase: Don't get involved.
As the train pulled into the station, the man suddenly lunged at Sagbaicela from behind and shoved her on to the frightening darkness of the subway tracks. The violent act took less than a second or two, all captured on a subway security camera.
Sagbaicela somehow landed on the safest part of the tracks — between the steel rails where the train bed is deepest. Instinctively, she ducked her head as the train rolled over her. She ended up with just eight stitches on her head and recurring nightmares of what might have happened to her.
By the way, this did not happen after midnight when the subways are nearly empty and the chances of being a crime victim are highest. It was 9:30 a.m., a Thursday. A normal workday.
"I can't move too much," Sagbaicela told WABC's "Eyewitness News" a few days later in an exclusive interview. "I can't move too much because this is too much — very hard."
Last Saturday, Michelle Alyssa Go stood on the subway platform at Times Square. Like Sagbaicela on that November Thursday in 2020, Go was not waiting for a subway in the wee small hours of the morning. It was 9:30 a.m. — arguably a safe and quiet time in New York City. Go, who lived in an apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, was on her way to visit friends.
Suddenly and without warning, a man pushed her from behind as a train rumbled in. Go tumbled to the tracks and was crushed instantly. Two police officers had been patrolling the platform. But they could not stop the attack. Like Go, they never saw the emerging danger.
But the danger nevertheless was there. When potentially violent mental patients wander in our public spaces, we are all potential targets. It’s been this way since the 1970s — nearly half-a-century. Simply put: Crazy people sometimes act crazily.
In the time that homeless has grown on our streets, America has embraced computers, cellphones — even the technology to conduct business conferences with Zoom. We’ve begun the long journey toward cleaning our water and air. We’ve developed in “warp speed” the vaccines that can fight the COVID-19 virus. To name just a few advancements.
But we can’t bring ourselves to take the hard steps to help our mentally ill homeless brothers and sisters -- and keep our other brothers and sisters safe.
How many more people like Michelle Alyssa Go need to die before we solve this?
Mike Kelly is an award-winning columnist for NorthJersey.com. To get unlimited access to his insightful thoughts on how we live life in New Jersey, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.
This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: Michelle Alyssa Go death: Why can't we solve homelessness in America?