NEW YORK (AP) — As bitter winter weather arrived in the Northeast, New York's governor issued an executive order requiring the homeless to be forcibly removed from the streets in freezing temperatures, an unprecedented government interjection 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 Fahrenheit 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, the 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, not these kind of tactics."
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. Six homeless people suffered cold-weather-related deaths in the city during the winter of 2013-14, the last season for which statistics are available.
Thirty years ago, then-Mayor Ed Koch tried to relocate the city's homeless but faced massive legal obstacles. The state's Mental Hygiene Law requires police to interview and determine mental capacity before taking a homeless person into custody; if the person appears to suffer from mental illness, he could be taken to a hospital or mental institution for evaluation.
Cuomo aides said Sunday, shortly after the order was issued, that state officials were interpreting the law to mean anyone who chose to turn down shelter in favor of sleeping outside in freezing temperatures inherently displayed some degree of mental illness and could therefore be removed. The governor's office later appeared to walk back that interpretation.
"Obviously, the order does not mandate involuntary commitment for competent individuals," Cuomo's counsel, Alphonso David, said in a written statement.
If that's the case, the order would largely reiterate outreach programs already in place in cities including New York City, Syracuse, Buffalo and Rochester. Other U.S. cities including Chicago, Philadelphia and Baltimore also expand shelter capacity and extend their homeless outreach programs when temperatures plummet.
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 the dead of winter.