With Homelessness Persisting, New Strategies Explored

With Homelessness Persisting, New Strategies Explored

Published On: 

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Homelessness is a persistent problem in the Mid-Hudson Valley and nationwide that is back in the news in recent weeks with a new policy from New York Governor Andrew Cuomo requiring local agencies to remove homeless people from the streets when temperatures fall to or below 32 degrees.

Despite a drop in the national rate of homelessness to a 10-year low in 2014, the rate has remained relatively stable in both the Mid-Hudson Valley region and the state (excluding NYC). The rate in the region was 14 per 10,000 residents in 2014, down 10% from 2013 but 6% above a low in 2005. There was more success over the past year in reducing homelessness in Orange and Ulster – where rates fell by 9% and 23% respectively from 2013 to 2014 – than in Dutchess, whose rate rose by 2% over that same period.

For each year from 2005 to 2014, the region’s homelessness rate has been higher than the State as a whole (excluding New York City), though below the nation. Homelessness in the state declined 4% since 2005, compared to a 30% decrease nationwide.

Governor Cuomo’s executive order, signed on Jan. 3, requires all local social service districts, police agencies and state agencies to move homeless individuals to appropriate sheltered facilities once the outside temperature reaches freezing. In addition, the order directs local social service districts to expand shelter hours and instructs outreach workers to work with other relevant personnel and local police to involuntarily transport those at risk for cold-related injuries.

Agency leaders in the Mid-Hudson Valley and other parts of the state have expressed concern about how the governor’s order will be implemented. For example, Dutchess’ sole overnight shelter, Hudson River Housing, is strategizing about how to handle increased costs associated with accommodating additional people as a result of the executive order. In the past, the shelter has had to turn away individuals when its 60 beds are filled, and the order does not specify whether shelters will be mandated to accept individuals even when at full capacity.[1]

 The order is designed to ensure compliance with the state’s current Mental Hygiene Law, rather than introducing a new law or policy. The text that the order refers to states that an officer may take into custody any person who appears to be mentally ill and may cause harm to themselves or others. However, it is unclear whether the law allows for the involuntary removal of mentally capable individuals who do not wish to go a shelter or other facility: homelessness or mental illness alone is not sufficient to support involuntary treatment. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office, while expressing support for the executive order’s intent, has contended that “to forcibly remove all homeless individuals in freezing weather, as the governor has ordered, will require him to pass state law.” [2]

Some public officials and news outlets, including the editorial board of the Poughkeepsie Journal, criticize the order as a well-intentioned but hasty response to a problem that requires a much more intensive and coordinated effort in order to solve. The county executives of both Dutchess and Ulster raised questions about whether the state will provide any funding for the mandate, and discussed contributing factors such as inadequate resources to provide mental health services and the state’s closure of psychiatric facilities.

In his State of the State address on Jan. 13, the governor outlined a more comprehensive approach to reducing homelessness. Cuomo proposed allocating $20 billion over 5 years to combat homelessness. Of the total amount, half would go toward building affordable housing units and the other half would support new shelter spaces and other homeless services. Along with the funding, the administration would require a strategic plan (“Continuum of Care”) from each jurisdiction requesting or requiring homeless assistance from the state. In addition, the state comptroller would audit shelters statewide to identify fraud, abuses, savings, and health and safety violations.

Chronic and acute homelessness have a host of causes, including drug addiction, lack of employment, lack of affordable housing, and mental illness. Single measures, such as the governor’s executive action, have the potential to help those without housing but more will need to be done to address the underlying issues. One example of a program that has demonstrated success in reducing homelessness is the Housing First policy. Housing First is an approach that centers on providing homeless people with housing as quickly as possible, and following up immediately with other services to help address the root causes of homelessness. Several regions nationwide have seen success with this policy, and several agencies in the Mid-Hudson region are also applying it in some of their programs.

For more detailed information about homelessness in the Mid-Hudson Valley, click here.  

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