ALBANY, N.Y. (CBSNewYork) — Gov. Andrew Cuomo has signed an executive order requiring homeless people throughout the state to be removed from the streets and brought to shelters when the temperature hits the freezing mark.
Cuomo said living on the streets is dangerous when temperatures fall to 32 degrees or below and that he has the right to protect public safety. The order takes effect Tuesday.
“We just finished the holiday season, and the holiday season is about compassion and love and brotherhood and helping one another, and this state has always set the bar higher than other states,” Cuomo told 1010 WINS.
“We’re saying what we believe as a people, as a society, is we want to make sure every New Yorker has a place to be sheltered and doesn’t have to be in the cold weather.”
But civil rights lawyers have defended homeless citizens who refuse to go to shelters, which some consider dangerous.
When asked about that concern Sunday, Cuomo replied: “That’s just unacceptable. We want people who’d be sheltered in safe, clean, decent, well-maintained places, and they will be. It’s not going to be somebody wants to stay on the street and freeze to death because they’re afraid to go into a shelter. We’re better than that.”
According to homeless consultant Robert Mascali, the homeless problem needs urgent attention, but the solution may be difficult to enforce.
“Time will tell, I mean, it is going to be extremely difficult to get these people who have turned down help over and over again,” Mascali told CBS2’s Valerie Castro.
One man who is living on the streets said the state can help by improving the shelters, not by forcing people into a bad situation.
“There’s gangs (in the shelters),” he told 1010 WINS’ Roger Stern. “There’s people being stabbed up, people being robbed, people being abused, mistreated.”
The move will likely increase tensions between Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has been criticized for his handling of the homeless situation. The mayor has made changes to the Department of Homeless Services, which offers assistance to those on the streets but does not force them into shelters.
“This doesn’t have anything to do with Mayor de Blasio specifically except that he is one of the mayors of the state and it will be binding on the city of New York, as it is in every city,” Cuomo told WCBS 880 of his order.
In a statement Sunday, de Blasio spokeswoman Karen Hinton said: “We support the intent of the Executive Order, but to forcibly remove all homeless individuals in freezing weather, as the Governor has ordered, will require him to pass state law. This Executive Order adds no legal or financial resources to New York City’s programs to assist the homeless, and merely requires all New York State localities follow many of the same requirements as New York City to shelter families and individuals in need in freezing temperatures.”
Hinton noted that no one is turned away from city shelters during freezing weather and that individuals facing imminent danger from the streets are moved to hospitals for mental health evaluations.
A Cuomo aide countered the mayoral statement by pointing out that the governor’s order says the state “will assist local social services districts if they are lacking facilities, resources or expertise.”
NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton has previously said court rulings that the homeless living on sidewalks are constitutionally protected have limited the ability of police officers to address the homeless issue.
Cuomo, however, said Sunday that local police commissioners should not be concerned about legal repercussions for enforcing his order.
“This is a state law,” Cuomo said. “This is the interpretation of the state law. If there’s a challenge to the law, I will defend it. I will be responsible because it’s my edict.”
A man Stern spoke with said he is suspicious of the governor’s motives.
“Is he trying to get them off the street to empty out the stations?” he asked. “Is he trying to get them off the street because it’s really 32 (or) below? Or is there another reason he’s trying to get them off the street?”
He added that the homeless can survive the cold in the subways and don’t need to be told where to go.
Michael Meyers, of the New York Civil Rights Coalition, called Cuomo’s order a ‘panic move,’ WCBS 880’s Stephanie Colombini reported.
“To pander to people’s concerns about – not liberty – but a menace to their eyesight,” Meyers said. “Anytime you take somebody off the streets or take them some place else where they don’t want to go, your civil rights and civil liberties are an issue.”
Meyers cited past cases where homeless individuals sued for being taken against their will and won, he said he doubts any legal group would represent the homeless community as a whole to take on Cuomo in court.
Cuomo said that he will defend his decision if it was brought to court.
“If I get sued for keeping people safe and getting people in from the cold because they were endangering themselves then so be it,” Cuomo said.