City Council to ThriveNYC: Where Did You Spend the Money?

First Lady Chirlane McCray speaking about mental health with inmates on Rikers Island in 2017. (Photo courtesy of ThriveNYC.)

For two hours on Tuesday, a dozen city council members and the public advocate asked questions about ThriveNYC, First Lady Chirlane McCray’s mental health initiative. Among other things, they wanted to know how the program spent close to $1 billion in four years, and how its leaders measure the program’s success.

“I think we started spending money before we had a discussion about how we want to pay for this,” said Jumaane Williams, the public advocate, at the oversight hearing. “It’s a great program but I do feel some of the metrics and concerns are being backed into.”

When McCray launched Thrive in 2015, the mayor’s office estimated the program would require $850 million over four years. Thrive’s breakdown accounts for only $743.2 million, including the $250 million in this year’s budget request. The opacity of the program led City Comptroller Scott Stringer to launch an investigation and, in a letter on March 1 to Mayor Bill de Blasio, request records related to Thrive.

“Certainly with $250 million that we’re spending, we want to make sure that the public understands what we’re spending money on,” said Vanessa L. Gibson, who represents the Bronx.

“We have money that we put into existing services to fill gaps in the traditional system, and then particular strategies that are brand new,” said Susan Herman, the director of ThriveNYC. “But the vast majority of where the money has been spent are our new programs, not supplanting budget items that were there before.”

Herman, previously the deputy commissioner for community policing at the New York Police Department, described her office as a coordinator for mental health initiatives across city agencies. Several line items in Thrive’s budget were allocated to the Departments of Health and Education. At Tuesday’s hearing, Herman and McCray touted progress in providing mental health support to city schools.

“Every other school now has access to mental health clinicians,” McCray said.

But council members pushed on whether Thrive should focus instead on the dearth of guidance counselors in public schools, especially in districts with high populations of homeless students.

“When we rezoned P.S. 191, the largest problem was getting a guidance counselor in the school,” said Helen Rosenthal, who represents the Upper West Side. “We don’t need a clinical mental health provider. We need onsite counseling.”

“It’s something we’re looking at. I’m not ready to talk about it right now,” McCray responded.

The rare appearance of the first lady, who runs the Mayor’s Fund for the Advancement of New York City, before the City Council was so well attended that the hearing had to be moved from the committee room to the larger council chamber.

McCray took on Thrive as her signature project after her daughter Chiara’s own struggle with substance addiction and depression. “ThriveNYC was my idea. I’m the founder, I provide strategic support,” McCray explained. “Susan Herman does the day-to-day management and makes the decisions.”

Thrive is meant to extend mental health support for low-income New Yorkers that is often already available to upper and middle-income communities, in line with De Blasio’s “Tale of Two Cities” platform. “That’s what we’re trying to do, to have people treated where they need it, when they need it, rather than always thinking emergency rooms,” said Herman

Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer asked questions centering on who determines whether Thrive has mets its benchmarks to justify funding. “Some of the population level outcomes will take a while just as any public health initiative does,” said Herman. “No one’s ever done this before.”

When pushed by Council Member Alicka Ampry-Samuel on data, Herman promised metrics would be made public online in a couple of months.

Council members also broached the topic of mental health on Rikers Island and assaults committed by mentally ill persons on the subway. Thrive executives said they had been training the NYPD to respond to distress calls and to identify perpetrators with mental illnesses.

Member attendance at a subsequent Committee on Mental Health hearing, where officials from the Department of Health testified on their Thrive initiatives, was significantly lower.