For tens of thousands of homeless New Yorkers, the unusually warm start to this winter has been a seasonal stroke of luck, especially compared to last year, when storm after storm rocked the East Coast, forcing throngs of homeless to take desperate measures. Back then, some slept on subways; others stayed in "cardboard condos," hidden away under scaffolds and near major transit terminals—whatever it took to stay warm.
But with temperatures set to plunge in January, it's that time of year again for America's richest city to grapple with how to protect its lowliest citizens from below-freezing temperatures. And thanks to an executive order issued from Albany, the state capital, that task is looking thornier than ever.
On Sunday night, with a major cold front approaching his state, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed an order mandating local municipalities take homeless individuals off the street when the temperature drops below the freezing mark.
The order goes into effect Tuesday, when New York City is slated to have a low of 25 degrees. But local homeless shelters—and the city's Department of Homeless Services (DHS)—have been working at "crisis mode," or way over-capacity, for years now. As of the Coalition for the Homeless's last count in October, over 59,500 men, women, and children sleep each night in NYC homeless shelters; that tally doesn't include the estimated thousands more on the streets. Homelessness in New York City is at its highest point in 80 years—and 80 years ago, the city was in the throes of the Great Depression.
The homeless problem remains one of the greatest issues facing the city right now. But just how the Governor's statewide remedy will affect it is hard to figure.
First off, an emergency provision like Cuomo's already exists, in some capacity, for New York City's homeless. When the temperature falls below 32 degrees, the DHS declares what is known as a "Code Blue." When this happens, emergency drop-off shelters must take anyone that enters, and an enormous outreach effort is undertaken by both DHS and the New York City Police Department to see if those still on the streets want to spend the night at a hospital or shelter. The measure was expanded in 2014 to ban shelters from denying families (the policy previously applied only to individuals).
In an interview Monday morning, Mayor Bill de Blasio tried to unpack this confusing entanglement of state and local law. "That's something NYPD does," he told WCBS, a local radio affiliate, when asked about the legality of the Governor's order. "That's something our outreach workers do through our Homeless Services department. So we have that capacity right now under state law—and we have done that for years and we will continue to do it."
On top of that, his office recently announced an initiative called HOME-STAT, a new program that aims to get the homeless off the streets, or at least provide the services they need. It's similar to the NYPD's CompStat effort, in that it uses data to target areas with high rates of homelessness (as CompStat does for crime), in order to more effectively deploy outreach. The program is controversial, with some advocates arguing that more police involvement will result in more unnecessary harm. But it's clear that there is help out there, with or without the state government's decree.
"During freezing temperatures, all families and individuals in need are provided immediate access to shelter," Karen Hinton, a press secretary for the mayor, said in a statement. "No one in need is turned away. Our shelters are required to remain open and accessible to residents all day, regardless of temperature. We also already move individuals facing imminent danger from the streets to hospitals for a mental health evaluation.
"This Executive Order adds no legal or financial resources to New York City's programs to assist the homeless," she continued, "and merely requires all New York State localities follow many of the same requirements as New York City to shelter families and individuals in need in freezing temperatures."
Hinton's language hints at an ongoing public dispute between the mayor and governor over how to handle the homelessness crisis, one that sometimes seems to be more about who the true progressive is rather than the homeless themselves.
After the order's announcement, a Cuomo official suggested to the New York Times that it was, indeed, the New York City crisis that sparked the move. "There are more than 4,000 homeless individuals living on the streets, with the majority in New York City," Alphonso B. David, Cuomo's chief counsel, said. "State law mandates that safe and clean shelters are provided to both families and individuals."
In the past, the governor's office has lambasted the de Blasio administration for its perceived ineffectiveness, as numbers continue to rise under the mayor's watch—a significant concern to raise, no doubt, even if tabloids have overdosed on painting the whole "New York is burning" theme. But Cuomo, who has extensive experience working with the homeless, has also been called upon by advocacy groups to do much more.
Yet if his order is any indication, Cuomo's proposed solutions aren't a whole lot different from those of de Blasio. And neither politician has done much to address the deeper economic questions of affordability here (as in, why are there so many homeless people in New York City?). While it may be helpful for other municipalities to adopt these policies, just how the governor's order would help New York City is a question worth asking.
"I'm not going to argue an individual's right to freeze to death," Cuomo said in a Sunday radio interview. "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. Let's go forward."
(The Governor's office has been reached for comment for this story, but VICE has yet to hear back.)
One of the more striking concerns over the Governor's order relates to what exactly the state intends to do with individuals with mental disabilities once they're approached by local officials. According to the Coalition for the Homeless, a large majority of homeless folks on the street "are people living with mental illness or other severe health problems."
As it stands, the order reads that "the state can take appropriate steps, including involuntary placement," to take a person off the street. Following that logic, the forcible removal of homeless individuals across New York has just been signed off on by state government—even though the state's Mental Hygiene Law restricts state or local officials from doing that without conducting individual assessments to see if the person is actually capable of making reasonable decisions for themselves. Policies like this one have been deemed illegal: When former Mayor Ed Koch tried to implement a similar plan in 1980, a court struck it down.
"We support the Executive Order, but to forcibly remove all homeless individuals in freezing weather, as the Governor initially ordered, will require him to pass state law," Hinton added.
When asked about this discrepancy—in that an order presented as being humane employs arguably inhumane measures—David told the Times that "obviously, the order does not mandate involuntary commitment for competent individuals." (According to the Daily News, Cuomo's aides have made clear that the mentally ill will be brought to safety, and given assessments as well. This suggests that the semantics of the order are fairly confusing.)
On the ground, the problems of homelessness are too complex to be solved by simple, sweeping policies. The numerous homeless men and women I've interviewed over the years all say they sleep on the streets for a reason. The shelters, they say, are worse than a jail cell—not only decrepit, but dangerous: You sleep with one eye open to protect yourself against someone swiping your things or an overnight warrant raid by the NYPD. I've met with lines of homeless men who sleep directly across the street from shelters. Even on the night of a major blizzard, it's all too common to find men and women who simply refuse to go inside.
"Putting people in shelter is like putting them in a cage," said Sheila Turner, a homeless member of the advocacy group Picture the Homeless who has slept on the streets for 30 years. "You can't imagine the things that have happened to people in there. How they've been hurt… You want to take people, snatch them up, put them somewhere they don't want to be, like an animal? Just because we can't afford to pay rent? We're not animals. We're human beings.
"This executive order will just put more cops in our face, give them new ways to mess with us, and that won't help the situation," she continued. "If you really want to help, get them somewhere they can be safe. The mayor and the governor keep pushing us, but we've been pushed too far. And we'll fight back. Peacefully, but there's a lot of us, and they don't want us sleeping outside Gracie Mansion [where the mayor lives] or the governor's office."
Let's just hope it's not a long winter.
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