Removing homeless from N.Y. streets faces challenges

Jonathan Lemire
Associated Press

New York – — As bitter winter weather arrived in the Northeast, New York’s governor has issued an executive order requiring the homeless to be forcibly removed from the streets in freezing temperatures, an unprecedented government intervention that faced immediate legal questions and backlash.

The order, believed to be the only one of its kind in any city or state, would require communities to reach out to their street homeless populations and take those people to shelters, voluntarily or not, once the temperature drops to 32 degrees or below.

“We have to get people in off the streets,” Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo said.

But the order faced resistance, including from New York City officials, who threatened not to comply. The prospect of forcible removals from the streets also raised deep worries among advocates for the homeless.

“Put simply, being homeless is not a crime,” said Mary Brosnahan, president of the Coalition for the Homeless in New York, who warned that aggressive measures would push “the most marginalized homeless men and women further away from the very networks needed to engage them.”

That sentiment was echoed by some homeless men interviewed by the Associated Press on Monday.

Eddie Rouse said he feels safer and more comfortable riding subway trains for warmth on frigid New York City nights than he would in a shelter.

“I’ve been in a shelter, and I’m telling you, a lot of those people need to be in mental institutions,” said Rouse, who’s 64. “You’ve got drug addicts. You have to wake up at a certain time and leave at a certain time. So they’ll put you back in the cold. You can’t stay in the shelter. It’s not a safe haven.”

Under current state law, a police officer or outreach worker can take people from the street only if they appear to be in imminent danger or display signs of mental illness.

Maria Foscarinis, executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, said there was no other U.S. municipality that had adopted a broad rule of removing people from the streets when it gets cold.

“The approach of the order is misguided,” Foscarinis said. “It’s a positive thing that (Cuomo) understands the urgency of doing something to help homeless people. But what’s needed is permanent housing and services ...”

Cuomo was moved to act amid a growing homelessness crisis in New York City, which houses about 58,000 people in shelters and has another 3,000 to 4,000 people living on the streets.

The Department of Justice’s civil rights division has increasingly cracked down on municipalities for enacting laws criminalizing sleeping on public streets even as many U.S. cities are battling a surge of homelessness during winter.