Involuntarily Committing New York’s Homeless to Shelter in Cold Weather?

500px-I_Love_New_York.svgWorth reading this well-reported NYT article, “[Gov.] Cuomo Orders that Homeless be Taken to Shelter in Freezing Weather”  in full b/c the governor’s office is still refining its position on what it’s doing and how it will do it.  Short version: an executive order signed yesterday and to take effect tomorrow will, according to the  NYT:

require…local governments to remove homeless people [and place them in shelter] by force, if necessary, once the temperature drops to 32 degrees Fahrenheit or below. The governor’s order says that to protect public safety, “the state can take appropriate steps, including involuntary placement.”

As for politics, this raises questions of friction between Gov. Cuomo and NYC Mayor de Blasio, who has made reducing homelessness a priority but has nevertheless confronted stubbornly high homelessness rates during his administration.

The more interesting question concerns policy: what power does government have to involuntarily detain homeless people when the former is ostensibly acting the latter’s and the general public’s best interest?  New York’s Mental Hygiene Law offers some guidance.  More from the NYT:

Zachary W. Carter, Mr. de Blasio’s corporation counsel, said in an internal city document that there were three ways to remove people from the street: voluntary entrance into shelter; arrest if a crime was being committed; and involuntary transfer for psychiatric evaluation or treatment if they posed a danger to themselves or others.

“Factors that do not support involuntary treatment include homelessness or mental illness alone; idiosyncratic behavior; conclusory assertions that person poses danger; mere fact that person would benefit from treatment,” the document said.

Obviously different jurisdictions (state and local) throughout the country maintain divergent policies on homelessness generally.  Letting alone the well-being of homeless people, some municipalities have taken steps that, advocates for the homeless say, effectively criminalize the condition of being homeless.  I’m specifically interested, however, in the question of governments taking action that is grounded, at least nominally, in caring for the homeless in such instances as cold weather emergencies.  Initially I don’t see much online about this but will look a little more.

Incidentally, the Coalition for the Homeless maintains stats on the number of homeless who are in NYC’s shelter system (roughly 60,000).  Governor Cuomo’s chief counsel said there are more than 4000 people living out of shelter and on the streets.

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