By Maria Santana and Susannah Cullinane, CNN
Jordan Neely, the man who died last week after being held in a chokehold on a New York City subway, was on a list of homeless people identified as having dire needs, according to a source familiar with his case.
Neely, a 30-year-old street artist known for his Michael Jackson impersonations, was restrained and forced to the floor in a fatal chokehold by another passenger after he started shouting that he was hungry, thirsty and had little to live for.
His death has been ruled a homicide by New York City’s medical examiner, but the ruling does not determine whether there was intent or culpability, which is a matter for the criminal justice system to consider. Charges have not been filed in the case, which is under investigation by the Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg.
Before his death, Neely had been on a NYC Department of Homeless Services list of the city’s homeless with acute needs — sometimes referred to internally as the “Top 50” list — because individuals on the list tend to disappear, a source told CNN.
The list is generally not made public but is compiled in hopes that outreach organizations will be on the lookout for those individuals and alert the city’s homeless services department to intervene, the source said.
The agency places additional focus on trying to find those on the list and give them the help they need, the source explained.
CNN has reached out to NYC DHS for comment.
Those who knew Neely say he was a talented dancer who eked out a living as a Michael Jackson impersonator in Times Square and on New York’s subways. But he fell on hard times in recent years, according to a friend and a relative, finding himself living on the street and struggling with his mental health after the trauma of losing his mother as a teenager.
Prior to his killing, Neely had a lengthy arrest record with New York police, a law enforcement source told CNN’s John Miller, including 42 arrests on charges including petty larceny, jumping subway turnstiles, theft, and three unprovoked assaults on women in the subway between 2019 and 2021.
A witness told CNN although Neely was acting erratically on the subway, he did not harm anyone nor did they see him armed with a weapon.
“Passengers are not supposed to die on the floor of our subways,” Neely family attorney Lennon Edwards said.
His death comes at a moment when New York City continues to grapple with the fundamental issues of a growing population of unhoused people and a mental health crisis — despite government efforts to alleviate the challenges.
The passenger who held Neely down, Daniel Penny, is a 24-year-old US Marine veteran and his attorneys have called the incident an “awful tragedy.”
Penny’s attorneys have said Neely had been “aggressively threatening” passengers and that Penny and others had “acted to protect themselves.”
“Daniel never intended to harm Mr. Neely and could not have foreseen his untimely death,” the law firm of Raiser and Kenniff, P.C. said in a statement Friday. “We hope that out of this awful tragedy will come a new commitment by our elected officials to address the mental health crisis on our streets and subways.”
As days pass since Neely’s death, protesters continue to call for charges in the case. On Friday, demonstrators gathered outside Bragg’s office, chanting “Indict Daniel Penny” and “Why is the killer free.” Some held signs that read, “Jordan Neely deserved better from New York.”
“We have people being killed for ringing the wrong doorbell, pulling in the wrong driveway and screaming out in desperation on the subway,” said Donte Mills, another Neely family attorney. “We cannot let that stand.”
Jumaane Williams, New York City’s public advocate, has demanded charges be filed “immediately.” The public advocate office helps with complaints involving government-related services and regulations.
“To say anything else is an equivocation that will only further a narrative that devalues the life of a Black, homeless man with mental health challenges and encourages an attitude of dehumanization of New Yorkers in greatest need,” he said.
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CNN’s Artemis Moshtaghian contributed to this report.