Does forcing the homeless into shelters help them?

Governor Andrew Cuomo’s new homeless policy may hurt the people it’s trying to protect

Last week, Andrew Cuomo issued a new Executive Order saying that local police, state services, and social services must force homeless people into shelters when the temperature drops below 32 degrees.

Setting aside the legality of the mandate, I’m sure Governor Cuomo is sincerely trying to protect people from freezing to death this winter.

But just because someone has good intentions, doesn’t mean we’ll get good results.

First, there’s the logistical burden this puts on local resources for the homeless. In Rochester, finding enough space at homeless shelters was enough of a problem last year that there was a tent city in downtown. Cuomo’s order puts new strains on the shelter system without addressing the root causes of homelessness. It’s an unfunded mandate that requires additional resources from homeless services and police departments.

Second, creating confrontations between police officers and the homeless tragic results.

Sister Grace Miller of the House of Mercy (a Rochester based homeless shelter and advocacy group), was concerned about forcing new interactions between police officers and the homeless: (via WXXI)

“Many of them have mental issues, and that’s what the problem is. Their mental issues haven’t been dealt with. I really think the police need to be careful. They need to persuade them to go in (to shelter), but I wouldn’t want them to use force nor see (the homeless) put in jail.”

Interestingly enough, the legal justification for Cuomo’s Executive Order is that it already within the scope of existing mental hygiene laws. Since the mandate requires police to involuntary detain anyone who refuses to go to a shelter, many of whom may be mentally ill, you’re going to get some people who resist. Many police departments don’t have the training to confront the mentally ill when a situation escalates.

Whether it’s because they’re mentally ill or because they have a substance abuse problem that prevents them from using shelters, some people just don’t want to go into shelters when it’s cold. Advocates spend their time building relationships with the homeless to encourage them to utilize services. Forcing the homeless into shelters destroys that trust and could lead to violent confrontations. Inevitably, we’ll see more of these confrontations as localities implement the order.

As I’ve said before, all laws bring the possibility of violence.  A coordinated effort between local governments, social services, and non-profits to bring the homeless in from the cold is admirable. Making it a mandate is the wrong approach and could hurt the very people it aims to protect.


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