After Cuomo order, city officials confer to clarify homeless policy
On Monday — the day before Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s new executive order was set to take effect requiring homeless people statewide be moved off the street during inclement or freezing weather — Mayor Bill de Blasio, Human Resources Administration Commissioner Steve Banks and NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton said they would not change city policies in response to the governor's action. Everything the order required, they said, the city was already doing.
But late Monday, officials from the police and fire departments, the Health + Hospitals Corporation and City Hall held a conference call to discuss and better coordinate the city’s current policies on when and how homeless people can be moved off city’s streets against their will, according to two homeless services providers who asked to remain anonymous and were apprised of the discussions.
Cuomo’s executive order, issued Sunday, calls for all local governments to find shelter for the chronically homeless when the temperature drops below freezing. If someone is unwilling to go to shelter, the order allows local governments to force them into the care of a mental health provider, under a state law that allows officials to intervene against a person’s wishes when he or she is at imminent risk of danger or death and considered mentally incompetent.
De Blasio said the city already follows the state’s mental hygiene law, and NYPD officers and social workers can remand a homeless individual to a hospital if they question the person’s mental competence, de Blasio and Banks said Monday.
For the most part, outreach services providers said de Blasio is correct: when a social worker calls an ambulance or the NYPD to take a homeless person to the hospital, city officials typically agree that it’s necessary. But that's not always the case. Sometimes, the NYPD or EMTs who arrive on the scene overrule the social workers, and vulnerable people get sent back out onto city streets.
“That’s sometimes a tug of war,” said Joe Hallmark, associate director at the Goddard Riverside Community Center, which conducts homeless outreach in Manhattan.
During the conference call Monday night, city officials agreed they would try to end those tugs of war, and remind city workers that they should defer to the outreach workers’ judgment on whether or not to pull someone off city streets.
“[W]e have been told that our professional determination — all outreach teams have staff trained and licensed to make this assessment on a case-by-case and person-by-person — will be the determining factor,” said one of the service providers.
Officials on the call also outlined plans to use four different city hospitals — Metro, Woodhull, Queens and North Bronx, one in each borough except for Staten Island — as the preferred destinations for any individuals picked up on city streets under the involuntary commitment policy.
The conference call was nothing out of the ordinary, said de Blasio spokeswoman Ishanee Parikh in an emailed statement. Such coordination efforts, she said, are standard procedure before the city deploys multiple agencies on efforts like homeless outreach.
“Every winter, the City engages in Code Blue homeless outreach to both voluntarily and involuntarily bring individuals from our streets into our shelters and hospitals," Parikh said, referring to the city's program for homeless outreach in cold weather.
"Whenever we re-launch multiagency efforts, we ensure all agencies and providers working on an issue are coordinated," she said.
The de Blasio administration said Tuesday that outreach workers had picked up 97 people on city streets overnight Monday, when temperatures fell to their coldest levels of the winter so far. Ninety-six of those people voluntarily agreed to go indoors — to shelters, safe havens and hospitals. Twelve of those people voluntarily agreed to go to hospitals. Just one person was brought to a hospital involuntarily, to receive a mental health evaluation.
One hundred and one people went to emergency rooms in city-run hospitals overnight, City Hall said.