Mail this story to a friend.          
NYSNYS NEWS: Local governments, nonprofits scramble to comply with outdoor homeless detention order issued January 3, taking effect this week.
NYSNYS NEWS: Local governments, nonprofits scramble to comply with outdoor homeless detention order issued January 3, taking effect this week.

By Kyle Hughes

ALBANY, N.Y. (January 4) — Local government and nonprofits officials scrambled Monday to comply with Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s order to find and detain homeless people living outdoors when temperatures drop below 32 degrees.

“When it becomes freezing, literally it is a public health and safety matter,” Cuomo told reporters in New York City, following a rally he held with labor unions on raising the minimum wage. “We have to get people in off the streets.”

The executive order announced Sunday takes effect Tuesday. Police, social services and state agencies are required to “take all necessary steps to identify individuals reasonably believed to be homeless and unwilling or unable to find the shelter necessary for safety and health in inclement winter weather, and move such individuals to the appropriate sheltered facilities.”

Cuomo also ordered social services agencies to extend shelter hours and keep homeless people indoors when temperatures drop.

Kevin O’Connor, executive director of Joseph’s House and Shelter in Troy, says the organization is ready to comply with Cuomo’s order. “We were surprised as everybody else about it, but I think it is a good thing,” he said. “It’s putting a spotlight on homelessness in a way that is hasn’t been for about 15 or 20 years.”

He said the Troy area has a number of people living unsheltered, and a survey last year put the overall homeless population at 185, most of them living in shelters. The group also operates three supportive housing locations for people who have been homeless.

Mike Saccocio, CEO of the City Mission of Schenectady, which has 100 people seeking shelter each night, said his group was awaiting clarification from Cuomo on the order to detain people and bring them to shelters against their will.

“At this point we don’t have the capacity to keep somebody against their will nor would we really be inclined to do that,” Saccocio said. “We feel respecting their autonomy, that if they say they don’t want to be here, they don’t have to be.” In such cases, police are notified when someone leaves in freezing weather without a place to go.

A Cuomo spokesman said Monday that police will conduct an assessment of anyone refusing shelter to see if they are mentally ill or a danger to themselves. Police are now trained to do that, and the order requires them to do so.

Saratoga Springs city officials held an emergency meeting Monday on complying with the order, Michael Finocchi of Shelters of Saratoga said. The city has established a Code Blue shelter in a Salvation Army facility. He praised Cuomo’s goal but said it may be difficult to meet on such short notice given crowded conditions and facilities that are drug and alcohol free and rely on volunteers to staff.

“One of the main issues is where are they going to go?” he said. Talks were under way to open a temporary shelter in a new space.

“There’s a lot that goes into this,” he added. “48 hours really isn’t enough time to get all the ducks in a row.”

The Conference of Mayors issued a statement to say Cuomo goal was good, but “NYCOM is concerned with the practical limitations and financial costs on city and village police departments attempting to comply with this edict. While the Order promises assistance to local social service districts, the nature of this aid needs to be clearly spelled out, including the degree to which it will offset the additional public safety costs for municipal compliance with this mandate.”

A Cuomo spokesman said that the state will provide financial assistance to local police agencies to process homeless people who will not enter shelters. State Police will also be available to help localities that lack necessary resources.

Cuomo said he would provide more details next week when he releases his 2016 State of the State message and 2016-17 budget plan.

Sunday, Cuomo made the surprise announcement that he has issued an executive order to get homeless off the streets this winter, taking them into custody if they do not cooperate. He said “involuntary placement” is legal.

When he put out his 2015-16 budget plan a year ago, Cuomo said the state’s homeless population is 80,590, the second highest in the U.S. according to a federal census. He said Monday the state spends $1 million annually on homeless programs. That includes funding for emergency homeless shelters, the development of new homeless housing, homelessness prevention activities, and rental assistance.

Groups that help the homeless say the population has been growing in recent years.