The problem with issuing executive orders, even those with good intentions, is that you often overlook the details — and the problems.
And that's what's wrong with the executive order issued Sunday by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, in which he mandated the rounding up of homeless people in the state, including those that don't want to go voluntarily, to protect them from the cold.
It's great that the state wants homeless people off the streets in cold weather. It's dangerous out there, and society doesn't want people freezing to death.
But there are some issues with the governor's executive order, starting with the part where he directs social services officials and police to "involuntarily transport ... at-risk individuals who refuse to go inside and who appear to be at-risk for cold related injuries."
There's this thing about America. You're free to live the way you want. If you don't want to go into a homeless shelter, you don't have to and the state can't make you without a legitimate reason. "It's for your own good" isn't one of them.
Some people prefer the freedom of living on the street. Some feel they already have the means to survive and don't need an institutional setting. Some don't trust the government. And some legitimately fear shelters, where vulnerable individuals can be subject to robbery and assault.
The governor, in response to challenges from civil rights organizations, said officials will only forcibly bring in people who appear to be mentally ill for evaluation. But who has the authority to determine who qualifies, who makes the evaluation, and by what standards?
The governor also says that any community that needs resources to comply with the order will receive it. But he's not specific about what kind of help the state will provide, when it will provide it and how communities go about getting it.
The order also overlooks the fact that most communities already have programs in place for seeking out the homeless and trying to get them into shelters when it's cold. What's the point of ordering communities to do something they're already doing?
There are more than 77,000 emergency shelter beds for homeless people in communities around the state. Does the state think they’re all out there doing nothing to bring in people from the cold?
Formal "Code Blue" procedures are in place in local communities like Albany and Saratoga Springs to bring homeless people in when temperatures drop. And in many cities like Schenectady, police and social workers already actively seek out homeless people to get into shelters or offer other assistance, such as providing food, warm clothing and blankets.
On top of that, the order was issued a day before the state's first real cold spell, giving communities no time to react to or prepare for a new mandate. Did it just dawn on the governor's office this weekend that winter was coming?
Homeless people certainly do need the state's help, but not in the form of an off-the-cuff executive order that subjects some to confinement without cause.
Communities that serve the homeless need more money for shelters, more help to support staffing (it's hard to get volunteers to serve 24/7), more short-term assistance to deal with mentally ill homeless individuals who can't protect themselves in extreme weather conditions, and more long-term assistance for all homeless in all conditions.
The executive order makes it look like the governor is looking out for the homeless in their time of need. But its compulsive nature threatens to tread on people's constitutional rights; most of the order's intent is already being carried out in our local communities; and the state is offering no specifics on how it plans to provide assistance to communities to help support their initiatives.
If there's a problem with getting the homeless into shelters in the cold, rather than an executive order, perhaps the state needs a better plan.