Leaders from around Montgomery County met Wednesday morning in Amsterdam to discuss how to implement Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s executive order to move homeless people into shelters in dangerously cold weather.
Cuomo made the announcement on Sunday as an Arctic front moved into the state, bringing the coldest temperatures so far this winter on Monday and Tuesday. The order directs local governments to place homeless people in shelters when the temperature drops to 32 degrees or below.
The order went into effect Tuesday.
Coming out of the meeting on Wednesday, county and city officials said there was no grand new plan of action, but more a consensus that the county had the resources and infrastructure already in place to handle the order, and now the lines of communication to make it happen.
“We were able to clarify that relationship between law enforcement, our social services office, and the [Danielle’s House] shelter,” said Montgomery County Executive Matt Ossenfort. “If someone is picked up and [police] do deem them a threat to themselves by being out in the cold, we understand the process that we need to follow and we do seem to have the resources in place to be able to handle that.”
Ossenfort and others, like Amsterdam Police Chief Gregory Culick, said the order is not likely to affect largely rural Montgomery County as much as cities like Albany and New York City.
According to Montgomery County Department of Social Services Commissioner Michael McMahon, the county has a relatively small homeless population and adequate shelter capacity.
“Today we have three in the shelter [in Amsterdam],” he said. “Two days ago we had five. We have not been overcapacity yet this year.”
Last year, he said, the eight-bed shelter served a total of about 82 people between November and April. That operating season, he said, may be stretched out if necessary next year under Cuomo’s executive order, depending on the weather.
His biggest concern, shared by other officials, was what to do with people who have been “sanctioned”— basically, kicked out of shelters for bad behavior like alcohol and drug use.
“We have questions for the state as far as how we’re going to manage those individuals,” McMahon said. “They’ve maybe been in our shelters and we’ve had to ask them to leave. We’ll have to serve those individuals now.”
Amsterdam Mayor Michael Villa, a former fraud investigator for the county Department of Social Services, shared that concern.
As far as police response, he said, they’re still going to operate mostly as usual. The “main crux of change,” he said, would be in how social services deals with those referred to them by police.
Culick said the order won’t mean major changes for his department.
If a person is picked up outside on a freezing night, he said, he or she would be brought to St. Mary’s Hospital for evaluation.
“If they determine that that person’s OK to stay outside, technically we can’t force them against their will,” he said. “It’s a constitutional right.”
In that respect, he said, the governor’s order is on “tenuous ground.”
“It’s tenuous to try to restrict someone’s free movement,” he said. “But in this situation, if the weather dips dangerously cold, we’re going to take all measures within our power to make sure no harm comes to them.”
Reach Gazette reporter Kyle Adams at 723-0811, [email protected] or @kyleradams on Twitter.
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