Police departments in New York on Tuesday began implementing an executive order by Gov. Andrew Cuomo that gives officers across the state the power to take homeless people off the streets and place them in shelters when temperatures dip below freezing — in some cases whether the homeless want to go or not.
The statewide effort, signed into law on Sunday, mirrors a policy already in place in New York City. Under the city’s “Code Blue” policy, homeless people that are deemed to be a danger to themselves or others, or mentally unwell, can be forced by police into a hospital or shelter.
“New York State law is clear and well-established that the State can take appropriate steps, including involuntary placement, to protect individuals from harming themselves or others,” Cuomo’s order states.
But the move has raised concerns among homeless advocates. They fear the measure, if enacted incorrectly, could lead to the criminalization of extreme poverty. Homeless people across the country have reported that theft, violence and the temptation to use illegal drugs present in shelters keep them away from the facilities.
“They’re horrible,” said Rafael Bonilla, 21, as he sat near Pennsylvania Station in New York City. “I’m scared of the shelters. There are too many drugs. Too much heroin. People there will steal my stuff.”
Leroy Rubin Williams, 55, who has been homeless or in prison for drug offenses over the last three decades, said he stays out of shelters because of the crime. Aggression from other homeless residents also keeps him away, he said.
“The shelter system is so bad,” Williams said. “That’s why I stay on the street.”
Cuomo, however, said the order's purpose is to save lives and limbs from hypothermia or frostbite. It mandates that shelters "are safe, clean, well maintained and supervised," although the text offers few details on how to achieve that.
“I’m not going to argue an individual’s right to freeze to death,” Cuomo said on WCBS radio on Sunday, as quoted by the New York Daily News. “I want to argue an individual’s human right to housing and services and shelter. The days when we’re going to argue civil rights for people to sleep on the street, we learned that lesson the hard way, and let’s not go backward.”
But taking the homeless off the streets could prove complicated, advocates warn. Police officers in smaller cities, they say, might not have the experience that police in New York City have in interacting with the homeless.
Jeff Foreman, policy director at the New York City-based Care for the Homeless, said that his organization welcomes the push for further outreach. But he said authorities must show respect for homeless people’s rights.
“It's important that [the executive order] be applied in a helpful, compassionate way designed to maximize assistance and positive outcomes and avoid violations of individual rights or damage or loss to an individual's property,” Foreman said.
Cuomo has said that he will defend the measure’s legality in court if necessary. Foreman said that challenges could come from people brought off the street who later contend in court that they were not a danger to themselves or others. Foreman said that the criteria of “danger to self” could apply when someone demands to stay outside when weather hits sub-zero lows.
Foreman said that social workers should accompany police when possible, or go out and do their own patrols, looking for homeless people sleeping out in dangerous temperatures. The executive order says that the state will help local authorities when they lack resources.
The more substantive effort to help the homeless, says Foreman, includes building supportive housing, places where people struggling with mental disorders or drug addiction can live. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio intends to build fifteen thousand new supportive housing units over the next fifteen years. Foreman says that is a good start.
“Supportive housing units have a very high success rate,” he added. “We know that they work.”