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.


Legal Aid Memory Lane: How New York’s “Right to Shelter” Policy Came to Be

A nice, brief story on the public radio program “Marketplace Weekend” about a Big Law lawyer500px-I_Love_New_York.svg who made big change via a late-1970s pro bono case:

“As New Yorkers face rising rents and stagnant wages, the city has seen a spike in homelessness. Around 60,000 New Yorkers currently live in municipal shelters. They are guaranteed a “Right to Shelter” that stems from an unprecedented 35-year-old lawsuit.

In 1979, Robert Hayes, a 26-year-old newly minted securities and anti-trust litigator with the white-shoe firm of Sullivan & Cromwell brought a class-action lawsuit on behalf of homeless New Yorkers. Hayes was a lawyer who had retained a habit from his days as a young journalist: He chatted with people he met on the street…

In December 1979, with winter looming, a judge found for Hayes and ordered the city to make shelters available. To Hayes, it was a win with an asterisk. He knew that many of the city shelters were crowded, dirty and violent. He went back to court, calling witnesses who could testify to the inhumane conditions of the city shelters. The testimony of a young Catholic worker named David Beseda was so powerful, Hayes and Hopper remembered, that once the judge had heard it, they were certain the case had been won.

“That afternoon, the city freaked out and came to the bargaining table, and we started negotiating a consent decree,” Hayes said.

The win affirmed the Right to Shelter. The decree came too late for the plaintiff, Robert Callahan. His died sleeping on the streets in lower Manhattan before it was signed. His death, said Hayes, was attributed to natural causes.

Hayes went on to co-found the Coalition for the Homeless with Hopper and Ellen Baxter. He knows Callahan v. Carey was a big win, but said he also felt a sense of failure. Youthful optimism had convinced him he’d see the end of homelessness, but he said the 60,000 New Yorkers currently living in shelters prove he came up short.


NYC Moves Toward Creating Unique “Office of Civil Justice”

From the Gotham Gazette, and as far as I know this is a first on the municipal level:

photo: wikimedia commons via David Monniaux.

“New York City is one step closer to having a new Office of Civil Justice. On Tuesday, the City Council’s Committee on Courts and Legal Services unanimously passed a bill that would create the office, to be tasked with assessing, coordinating, and helping reform the civil legal services available to low-income New Yorkers….

The bill, Intro. 736…is expected to sail through the full City Council Wednesday and be signed into law by Mayor Bill de Blasio in the coming weeks….

The office will be headed by a civil justice coordinator appointed by the mayor, and will assess the efficacy and capacity of existing civil legal provider programs. The city currently allocates tens of millions of dollars to provide civil legal services for those who cannot afford counsel. The civil justice office would also develop a five-year plan to ensure low-income New Yorkers have the access to the civil legal services they need.”