By Rockland County Executive Ed Day
Earlier this week, Governor Cuomo signed an executive order requiring local governments across the state to take homeless people to shelters in freezing temperatures. While my county executive colleagues and I agree that caring for our homeless is a moral imperative, most of us have concerns with the governor’s mandate.
Let me start by acknowledging Rockland County’s Department of Social Services. Under the leadership of Commissioner Susan Sherwood, our DSS already addresses most of the issues covered by the Executive Order. Under my Administration, the County and our community partners have taken significant steps to cut down on homelessness through effective outreach and prevention programs.
Along with nonprofit organizations like Helping Hands, the Center for Safety and Change, the Legal Aid Society and others, Rockland County has an integrated system to identify homeless and shelter local families with children and runaway teens. Recipients must agree to accept help and follow shelter rules to receive assistance.
As for long-term solutions, my administration is working with developers to create more units of permanent, affordable housing in our towns and villages. As for jobs, we’ve partnered recently with Rockland Community College and Rockland BOCES to operate the Rockland County Career Center, offering job search and career development services.
But, homelessness is not merely a housing issue; it’s a mental health issue. Unfortunately, Governor Cuomo’s Executive Order does nothing to address this key issue.
The order instructs local governments and police agencies to remove people, with force if necessary, when the temperature drops to 32 degrees or below and says “involuntary placement” is an option. But, the order is based on the state’s mental-hygiene law, which means people who are deemed to be mentally ill and a danger to themselves or others could be removed, but homeless people found to be mentally competent can refuse assistance.
I believe the Governor’s mandate to force cold-weather sheltering could potentially violate the civil rights of our residents. While those who are found to be mentally ill and pose an imminent danger to themselves can be rightfully moved, what about those who make a rational, conscious decision to stay living on the streets?
What’s more, the policy expands to include the undocumented population and people who are noncompliant with rules and regulations, even requiring daily mental health assessments. These elements present a numerical and fiscal challenge to our DSS and Department of Mental Health that will triple the workload for our already overloaded case workers.
Governor Cuomo’s decision to expand homeless outreach and social service programs should have involved weeks of planning and lengthy discussions between the state, local governments and other community partners. But, unfortunately, local leaders were not looped in until after the Governor issued the order.
As a result, there are real issues: practical limitations and financial costs associated with the order. Do we expect our police to round up the homeless? Who will handle the increased responsibilities? Who is going to pay for the added costs? What is the impact to our nonprofit community partners? In a cash-strapped county like Rockland, we need more than a nonspecific promise of additional state resources for this unfunded mandate.
From Rochester to Rockland County, local governments are working to process Governor Cuomo’s order. But, the big question remains: Is forcing our homeless into shelters the appropriate solution? One thing is crystal clear: county and city leaders are unlikely to have the current resources to accommodate the mandate.
Know this: when the temperature plummets, the Rockland County Department of Social Services is ready to help. Residents may contact InfoRock at 845-364-2020 for assistance, if emergency housing or other assistance is needed.