Yesterday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order requiring social service agencies throughout the state to extend shelter hours and take other steps to ensure a roof is available to the homeless. Less benevolently, it required state and local police to locate homeless people who are "unwilling" to enter the shelters, and to force them into those institutions when the temperature falls below freezing. It "is clear and well-established," the order claims, "that the State can take appropriate steps, including involuntary placement, to protect individuals from harming themselves."
This has gotten pushback from civil libertarians, from homelessness activists, and from the City of New York. (The context of Cuomo's order includes an ongoing public-pissing match between Cuomo and NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio.) Not surprisingly, a lot of homeless people are upset about it too. The New York Daily News reports:
"Hell no, I won't go to a shelter! How's that even lawful? You can't force people off a public street," said Luis Diaz, 31, who was shivering with his girlfriend on a Midtown streetcorner as temps hovered in the mid-40s.
"It's going to be crazy. They don't have enough room. They don't have the infrastructure to do this. Where are they going to put us? If they're shoving us in shelters with crazies and people who can't handle being in there, there is going to be a lot of fights. We're safer out here."
"I feel violated by this," added William Sanders, 45, who said he considered it "cruel and unusual punishment" to be forced into a shelter, where he said he has faced hostility from other residents because of sores on his legs but has been unable to get medical services.
"There is going to be anger and violence in the shelters if we go against our will. They are putting us in a really bad situation," he said.
According to the Daily News, some officials are now "saying people would not be forced to leave the sidewalks." But it also quotes the governor defending the idea of coercing New Yorkers into shelters: "If I get sued for keeping people safe and getting people in from the cold because they were endangering themselves, so be it." That doesn't sound like a man backing down.
A while back I blogged one homeless man's explanation for why he avoids the shelters. In addition to citing safety issues, he noted the unpleasantness of being a law-abiding non-addict in a place whose rules are "designed to try to keep alcoholics, drug addicts and criminals from being able to do those things." Obviously, his cost/benefit calculations might change in extremely cold weather; but that ought to be his choice to make, not the state's.
In any event, Cuomo's order is yet another example of the convergence of the welfare state with the criminal justice system. For more on that topic, go here, here, and—for a more historical view—here.