Should Cities Force Homeless People Off the Streets?

After a few unusually warm weeks, freezing winter weather is once again the norm across the country. It’s an annoyance for those of us with residences outside of the Sun Belt but for people who are homeless in those regions, cold weather can literally be deadly.

In light of that fact, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced yesterday that he’s signed an executive order telling police and social service agencies to force homeless people into shelters.

The move recalls a late 90s policy of New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani which made it a crime to sleep on the streets. That move was widely condemned by many liberals including Norman Siegel, director of the New York Civil Liberties Union who denounced the earlier initiative as forcing a choice between ‘living on the streets or locked up in jail.”

The Giuliani policy was primarily targeted at mentally ill displaced people after a string of violent assaults and it applied throughout the year. The Cuomo policy, however is strictly limited to colder months and freezing temperatures, the governor said in an interview with CBSNewYork.

“We’re saying what we believe as a people, as a society, is we want to make sure every New Yorker has a place to be sheltered and doesn’t have to be in the cold weather.”

Cuomo, a Democrat, also dismissed concerns that his policy would be a civil rights violation. “That’s just unacceptable. We want people who’d be sheltered in safe, clean, decent, well-maintained places, and they will be. It’s not going to be somebody wants to stay on the street and freeze to death because they’re afraid to go into a shelter. We’re better than that.”

There’s some chance that current New York City mayor Bill de Blasio will oppose the new mandatory shelter policy although the initial word from his spokeswoman Karen Hinton was tepid approval.

“We support the intent of the Executive Order, but to forcibly remove all homeless individuals in freezing weather, as the Governor has ordered, will require him to pass state law,” she said in a statement. “This Executive Order adds no legal or financial resources to New York City’s programs to assist the homeless, 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.”

According to homeless advocates, many people living on the streets do not want to go to shelters for fear that their possessions will be stolen or that they may come into contact with bedbugs, lice, and other health hazards.

David Pirtle, a former homeless man told NPR that horror stories about crime, drugs, and vermin make many dispossessed stay away because “unfortunately, a lot of those things are true.”

In his case, however, Pirtle credited being arrested for petty theft which helped get him off the street and into treatment for mental illness:

“What changed for me first and foremost was I got arrested, and I know that doesn’t sound like a good thing, but it was a good thing for me because it was the first time anybody realized that I needed help. A lot of the time people out there with mental illnesses are unrecognized. And when I got arrested for trying to steal some food, the prosecutor and the defense attorney and the judge, they all said this guy is not a criminal, he just needs help.”

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