Sheltering Homeless In Cold Is Complicated

NYAPRS Note: The following two articles – one from the Buffalo News, and one from the New York Daily News – point to the complexities of enforcing Governor Cuomo’s recent executive order to remove homeless people on the streets to shelters when the temperature falls below 32 degrees farenheit.

In Buffalo (and presumably elsewhere), there are both practical questions around how and where to find beds for all of the city’s homeless, as well as fundamental questions around the possible infringement of rights that coerced sheltering might bring about.

In NYC, Mayor deBlasio’s point person on homelessness – Steven Banks – was recently questioned at a board meeting regarding the standards by which Code Blue workers abide to determine whether a homeless person may have a mental health condition. As you can see from the actual line of questioning (and Banks’ answers) below, it is unclear how such determinations are made, which betrays how complicated enforcing the Governor’s executive order may prove to be.


Sheltering Homeless In Cold Weather Is More Complicated Than It Seems

Some street people raise objections to governor’s winter mandate

By Charity Vogel The Buffalo News January 17, 2016


As the evening grew late, Richard Doyle was running out of options.


The NFTA bus terminal, for the moment an oasis of flourescent-lit warmth and bustle in the January chill, would close in a couple of hours.


City Mission was one possibility. Doyle, who said he is 61 but looks older, had stayed there before. But this evening, as 11 p.m. drew on and the temperature outdoors dipped below freezing, he considered making his way toward Harbor House, a shelter on Genesee Street near Michigan Avenue.


Truth be told, though, he would rather not go to any shelter.


“I don’t really like it,” said Doyle, whose soft-spokenness at times made him hard to understand. “It’s too much people there. It’s numbers. It’s confusion.”


Doyle is among those under scrutiny this month, following Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s order Jan. 4 that homeless people need to be in shelters – taken there by force, if needed – when the weather drops to 32 degrees or lower.


But there are questions about the new rule.


Some have to do with practical matters: how and where to find – and give beds to – all of the region’s homeless, when the temperature turns freezing. That can be many nights each winter in Buffalo.


And there are more fundamental problems, too.


Many homeless people deal with mental illnesses and conditions. Forcing them to do something they don’t want to – seek shelter – might feel like a violation of their rights.


Cuomo’s new rule is overall a good idea, as it will protect lives, said Karl Shallowhorn, director of community advocacy at the Mental Health Association of Erie County and Compeer Buffalo.


“To have people freezing outside is certainly not something we want to have happen to anyone,” he said.


But he also sees the flip side.


“Some people do feel that they do have the right to make the choice for themselves,” Shallowhorn said. “Of not being in a shelter … of remaining homeless.”


A spokesman for the governor said that the 32-degree rule is for all.


“It’s a uniform requirement across the state,” Frank Sobrino said.


Yet as well-intended as the governor’s directive might be, it also could be tough to put into practice.


“I think it’s kind of hard to enforce,” said Eric Johns, pastor at the Buffalo Dream Center, who is known for spending a week each year living on the streets. “I don’t see how you’re going to force someone to stay in a shelter.”


Bus terminal, Scene 1


In the downtown bus terminal on a recent winter weeknight, two men slumbered deeply, spread out flat on the beige linoleum floor of one of the hallways, plastic bags next to each. They slept just around the corner from an office of the NFTA police.


Another man, who said his name was Wes, needed a ride to a shelter as midnight approached.


Others, including a young man who avoided a reporter, also appeared to be homeless.


Will Marcy, an elder at Grace Point Church who frequently volunteers to coax the homeless to shelters, knows how to spot the ones who need help.


“I’m fairly good at it,” Marcy said of his ability to recognize homeless men – and, less frequently, women – amid the crowds of travelers, college kids and troubled folks who stream through the bus terminal. Once or twice a month, he guesses wrong.


“They’re like, ‘No, I’m OK,’?” he explained.


Governor’s order


The governor’s order covers all communities in the state.


He directed that local social services offices and police make sure that homeless people are in shelters when the temperatures get to 32 degrees or below. If necessary, they should be taken there against their will.


Sobrino, the spokesman for Cuomo, told The Buffalo News late last week that the rule has been playing out well.


“Things are – have been, to this point, going well,” Sobrino said.


He said that the portion of the rule that deals with involuntary placement of homeless in shelters is a step that calls for a screening or assessment of each individual, to see whether mental health problems call for such an action.


“That goes to the judgment call of the individual that’s making the approach,” Sobrino said.


He said the motive of the process is a positive one.


“It’s to help the person,” he said.


But the challenge of having all men and women without homes go to shelters when the temperatures drop below freezing is not a small one – or a short-term one.


Not all homeless people have mental health problems, said Shallowhorn of the Mental Health Association. But many do.


And under the state’s mental hygiene law, “a person can be involuntarily detained or committed” if the individual appears to have any chance of hurting others or themselves, said Shallowhorn.


There are other challenges with Cuomo’s directive and other goals for ending homelessness.


Shelter space for homeless women in Buffalo can usually be found right away, said Marcy, the church volunteer. For homeless men, he said, it is harder.


On a Code Blue night, Marcy said, there are 60 places that need to be checked for any homeless people.


Bus terminal, Scene 2


The man at the bus terminal says that he does not mind bad weather.


“I’m not scared of the cold,” said the man who identified himself as Richard Doyle.


“I can turn the heat on anytime,” he said. “In my heart.”


He took out a comb with broken teeth and began to comb his hair briskly.


At the bus terminal where he wandered the halls on a recent winter weeknight, Doyle said he had a brother named Danny and that he spent time in Java in the past.


For a while, Doyle, clad in khaki pants, a leather jacket and a knit cap, sat in one of the molded plastic chairs ranked in rows in one part of the station. Marcy handed him a bottle of water.


Doyle was friendly to strangers, though largely uninterested. He spoke softly and quickly, sometimes muttering to himself. He drank out of the terminal’s water fountain and walked outdoors at one point to smoke a cigarette, alone. He asked a News photographer for $20.


The shelter


Despite the statewide orders, for some homeless, not much seemed to have changed here.


At the City Mission in Buffalo, leaders said that Cuomo’s order will mean some differences in the ways “Code Blue” nights are handled.


Right now, the cut-off is lower than 32 degrees, usually 15 degrees, one said.


“Code Blue will be every night,” Stuart L. Harper said of the impact.


Those nights present challenges in many ways, said Harper, executive director of the City Mission for the past eight years. There needs to be more security in place, for one thing.


“The guys in Code Blue, there’s a lot of mental health issues,” he said. “These particular men have some special needs.”


The mission, which has 92 beds for men, plus an extra 50 cots that can be set up, and 15 spaces for women, adapts to the needs of the people who use it on the coldest nights, he said.


For example, food for the homeless who come in from the cold can be put out for eating whenever they want to eat, instead of at set mealtimes, he said. Those men prefer to eat when they want.


“It’s a challenging population,” Harper said. “We’ve been blessed with the fact we’ve been doing it almost 100 years, and we’re good at it.


“We treat them like human beings,” he said. “We’re respectful.”


Instructions for police


At the Buffalo Police Department, officers will be given instructions on Cuomo’s new order, Lt. Steve Nichols said. A lesson has already been drawn up, he said.


But in many respects, the policy will not change the ways that officers talk to and interact with the city’s homeless, he said. Those relationships are long-standing, said Nichols, who is part of the community policing program.


“We kind of keep an eye on them,” he said of the homeless in Buffalo.


“Our officers kind of really do have a relationship with many of the homeless in the City of Buffalo,” he said. “A lot of them have been here for years.”


The governor’s order is not a huge shift, he said.


“All we’re doing is fine-tuning,“ Lt. Nichols said. “In practice, it’s what our officers do do.”


Bus terminal, Scene 3


Marcy, wearing a baseball cap during his regular Thursday night rounds of the bus terminal, approached the two men sleeping on the floor and left bottles of water quietly next to each of them.


He said he did not wake them up, because they were safe and warm where they were.


“They’re sleeping, they’re warm, I’ve got no place to put them.”


Marcy spends two weeknights – Tuesdays and Thursdays – working with the homeless in the bus terminal and in other locations around the downtown area, each week. He also does homeless outreach many Saturdays.


One of the things his church hands out to homeless men and women is a toiletry kit, with toilet paper, deodorant, soap, Band-Aids, a razor and other small items.


“They keep seeing us,” said Marcy, 50, a Town of Tonawanda resident who has a computer business. “Sometimes a gift is, ‘I’m being loved.’?


Sometimes church members put a prayer card in the kits, he said. Sometimes not.


And sometimes, Marcy said, when you work with the homeless for any length of time, there is a bit of fatigue from seeing the problem so often, as well as the sadness you see.


“It gets hard sometimes,” Marcy said. “Compassion fatigue.”


He reflected on some of the tough cases he has seen, people dealing with personal struggles, alcohol, and more.


“There’s a lot of drinking,” Marcy said. “I’m OK with addiction. … It’s seeing people keep falling back, and falling back, and falling back.”


Rural poor


In the rural areas of the region, homelessness is not as big of a problem as it is in the city, said Dr. Frank J. Cerny, at the Rural Outreach Center in East Aurora.


But rural areas do have problems with “inadequate” housing.


The lack of good, stable homes is less obvious in rural locations, said Cerny, who is executive director of the organization.


So in some senses, he said, it might be that “it’s just invisible.”


“It’s there, but we’re not seeing it,” Cerny said of the rural homeless. “They’re finding alternatives – they’re pretty resourceful. … They’re homeless, but they’re not unsheltered.”


At the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library, library administrators said that the Central Library in downtown Buffalo is a place where homeless people go to get warm and sit indoors in cold weather.


And that is fine with the library.


Carol A. Batt, chief operating officer at the library system, said patrons use the library for all sorts of reasons.


“Some people come to get out of the weather,” said Batt. “These are all valid reasons to use the library. … We want to be warm, welcoming places.”


Bus terminal, Scene 4


The bus terminal in downtown Buffalo closes for a couple of hours in the wee hours of the morning.


As that period loomed, near 11 p.m., Marcy and another church volunteer drove Doyle and Wes to Harbor House.


At Harbor House, a storefront at Genesee and Michigan, the faces of young men were visible through the window.


A thermometer in the car read 31 degrees.


Cuomo’s rule was, technically speaking, now in effect.


Wes and Doyle climbed out of Marcy’s car and headed for the door.


Marcy said that he sees his work as not so much a choice as a duty.


“What are you going to do, go home? Watch TV?” he asked. “There’s people sleeping outdoors.”



Lost On The Street

Editorial New York Daily News January 17, 2016


There was nothing ambiguous in Gov. Cuomo’s executive order commanding local authorities to transport to shelter anyone sleeping exposed to the elements who seems to be mentally ill, when the temperature falls below freezing.


The governor reinforced the point on Wednesday during his State of the State address. After pledging a $20 billion, 15-year program to build shelters and housing for the homeless, he said:


“In addition, we will require all social service districts, municipalities, social service workers and police departments to operate in full compliance with New York State laws and regulations or they will be subject to state sanctions.”


Cuomo’s unstated premise has been that, under Mayor de Blasio’s leadership, the city is failing to sufficiently exercise its power to involuntarily bring people who appear to be mentally ill and a danger to themselves to a facility for evaluation.


De Blasio and his point person on homelessness, Steven Banks, responded that they fully apply the law, dispatching Code Blue teams during frigid temperatures to locate street people and get them to shelters if possible.


City Hall reported that, during one recent week, the operation brought 323 individuals to shelters, all but a few of them voluntarily. Standing alone, the number is meaningless.


How does it compare with transports during winter weeks in past years? How many people refused help? How many people appeared to be mentally ill? How many people cycle into and out of shelter quickly?


The administration does not release those numbers. Visiting the Daily News Editorial Board last week, Banks said annual comparative figures were not available. The limited data he could provide, pending launch of a promised tracking system, suggested only that the majority of street homeless contacted by his outreach workers stayed right where they were.


During the board meeting he contorted every which way to avoid explaining what standards Code Blue workers apply in determining whether a street person appears to be mentally ill.


“It requires an individualized assessment,” he said. “You’ve got to have that standard of danger.”


But what are the standards?


“The police applying their practical experience.”


But what are the standards?


“I think you’ve got to look at what the case law says.”


But what are the standards?


“The standard we have to apply is the standard we have to apply.”


But what are the standards?


“Individual determinations have been made.”


But what are the standards?


“Mental health professionals are telling mental health professionals how to apply the standards.”


But what are the standards?


“They’re applying the kinds of things you would want them to apply.”


But what are the standards?


“My only instruction to everyone is: When it’s freezing cold, I want to make sure we’re saving lives.”


Banks is a former Legal Aid lawyer who spent years suing the city over failings in the homeless system for families. All too fittingly, he cited a U.S. Supreme Court justice’s famous explanation of how he identified obscenity.


“Potter Stewart once said: You know it when you see it.”


Banks got concrete only when suggesting that the city’s standards were to be found in the NYPD’s Patrol Guide.


“They have a standard, and it’s the one that basically talks about you gotta have to have danger to yourself or others, and that comes from the mental hygiene law.”


Not really. In the section covering homelessness, the Patrol Guide refers to mental illness only in the instance of so-called EDPs, emotionally disturbed persons. Typically, these are severely deranged individuals who are immediate threats to public safety. Think of a knife-wielding madman.


Training materials for outreach workers sketch similarly extreme scenarios.


As Banks was heading off to resume helping the homeless, he said with a smile, “Just don’t write that we have no standards.”