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What you need to know for 11/24/2017

Cold weather leaves Capital Region agencies seeking clarity


Cold weather leaves Capital Region agencies seeking clarity

Police and governmental agencies — along with nonprofit shelters — Monday were sorting out how a new
Cold weather leaves Capital Region agencies seeking clarity
Kevin Germain sets up his bed at the Saratoga Springs Code Blue Shelter at the Salvation Army on Woodlawn Avenue on Monday afternoon (Jan. 4, 2016).
Photographer: Erica Miller

Police and governmental agencies — along with nonprofit shelters — Monday were sorting out how a new executive order calling for increased efforts to shelter the homeless during cold weather would impact their operations.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo released the order Sunday, and it takes effect Tuesday — just in time for a blast of arctic air that was expected to drive low temperatures to near zero Monday night and to under 15 degrees on Tuesday and Wednesday nights.

The order directs social service and police agencies to identify homeless individuals “unwilling or unable to find the shelter necessary for safety and health … and move such individuals to the appropriate sheltered facilities” when temperatures dip below freezing.

But the specifics of the order left local agencies with unanswered questions Monday, including how far those agencies should go in compelling individuals who refuse shelter services.

Schenectady police spokesman Lt. Mark McCracken said the department was still trying to figure out if the order would precipitate a policy or operational change for how Schenectady police approach dealing with homeless people during inclement weather.

He said the department operates under the state mental-health law, which gives officers discretion to determine if people pose a risk to themselves or others, in which case they can be detained and taken to a hospital.

McCracken said the order could require officers to go a step further and arrest people who don’t pose a risk but who refuse to go to a shelter. He said some homeless people in the city don’t take advantage of shelters, opting to shelter themselves instead.

“If individuals had the ability to care for themselves and didn’t present a threat to themselves or others, you are arresting people, compelling them to go somewhere against their free will — that is technically an arrest,” McCracken said.

Schenectady County officials spent Monday in meetings with other public and private agencies to find consensus on implementing the order but hadn’t developed any formal policy or guidance as of Monday afternoon.

“We are just starting the dialogue with some of our friends,” county spokesman Joe McQueen said.

He said the county helps to coordinate services provided to homeless people across the county, at shelters and in temporary housing. But he said those efforts are focused on people who seek help.

“There are limitations on what we can do, especially if an individual refuses services,” McQueen said.

Saratoga County Sheriff Mike Zurlo said the executive order shouldn’t change the way his department approaches homelessness during cold weather. He said it is uncommon for his department to encounter homeless people who refuse help, pointing out that his jurisdiction is largely across rural areas.

“We usually get people calling for help, not refusing help,” Zurlo said.

Cuomo’s order also directs homeless shelters to extend hours and make accommodations to meet the needs of more people during cold weather.

Mike Saccocio, executive director of the Schenectady City Mission, said the mission provides as many services as it can to homeless people throughout the year. He said he wasn’t yet sure how, or if, the order would change his group’s operations.

He said the mission was not in a position to force people who wanted to leave the shelter to stay there. But, he said, he and his colleagues strive to make the shelter experience the best it can be.

Saccocio said homeless people might not want to utilize a shelter for several reasons, including previous bad shelter experiences, an unwillingness to abide by certain shelter rules, or a strong independent streak.

“We should never stop thinking about ways to encourage people to come to the shelter if they need those resources,” he said. “It’s also important for people if they are competent to be able to make decisions about where they will go.”

During an interview with NY1 News on Sunday, Cuomo said the order was about “love” and “compassion.”

“It’s about helping one another and basic human decency,” he said.

Administration officials tried to tamp down perceptions that the order was calling for widespread forcible transportation of people to shelters in the cold weather.

“Obviously, the order does mandate involuntary commitment for competent individuals,” said Cuomo’s chief counsel, Alphonso B. David, who added that the order directed police agencies to abide by the state mental-health law.

The order comes as a short blast of arctic air descends on the Capital Region. Overnight wind chills into Tuesday were expected to dip to minus 8, according to the National Weather Service. The highs on Tuesday and Wednesday are forecast to be 25 and 37, respectively.

The New York Times News Service contributed to this report.

Reach Gazette reporter Zachary Matson at 395-3120, or @zacharydmatson on Twitter.

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