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Can New York force homeless people into shelters? Why Cuomo says yes.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order Sunday requiring all homeless people in the state to enter a shelter when temperatures are below freezing – even against their will. 

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    In this Oct. 9, 2015, file photo, a homeless man holds a sign asking for money while sitting at the entrance to a subway station in New York. After receiving criticism for being slow to address an increase in the city’s homelessness population, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio moved to overhaul the city’s response to the crisis. But Gov. Andrew Cuomo says he will roll out his own plan to handle New York City’s homelessness problem in next month’s State of the State address.
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New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order Sunday requiring homeless people throughout the state to be removed from the streets and brought to shelters when the temperature is below freezing.

In his executive order Sunday, Gov. Cuomo directed state agencies to take “all necessary steps to identify individuals reasonably believed to be homeless and unwilling or unable to find the shelter necessary for safety and health in inclement winter weather, and move such individuals to the appropriate sheltered facilities.”

In recent years, homelessness in New York City has reached its highest levels since the Great Depression. In October 2015, the Coalition for the Homeless estimated over 59,500 homeless in New York City alone, including over 23,000 homeless children. And larger homeless populations have coincided with more shelter visits: The number of New Yorkers sleeping each night in municipal shelters is now 86 percent higher than it was a decade ago. 

“Everybody makes a New Year’s resolution or many people do. Well, this is a State’s New Year resolution, a New Year resolution for the State of New York and in many ways, its keeping with the spirit of the holiday season, right? Which makes it very simple” Cuomo says in an interview with NY1 Sunday morning. “It’s about love. It’s about compassion. It’s about helping one another and basic human decency.”

But human rights lawyers have criticized Cuomo’s executive order, saying it violates the autonomy of homeless citizens. 

“We have a lot of legal concerns about how you force people off the street and into shelter,” advocate Judith Goldiner, head of the law reform unit at the Legal Aid Society, told The Wall Street Journal. “To the extent that they’re talking about arresting people who refuse, obviously we are completely opposed to that.” 

Roughly 58,000 homeless New Yorkers currently take advantage of shelters, with another 3,000 to 4,000 opting to stay on the streets instead, NY1 reports. Some homeless people say they are afraid of the shelters and feel less safe there then they do on the streets. But with thousands of homeless citizens refusing shelter in freezing temperatures, Cuomo says he is not afraid of backlash.

“If I get sued for keeping people safe and getting people in from the cold, because they were endangering themselves, so be it,” he said during a radio interview. 

Cuomo’s New Year's resolution for the state of New York also highlights a growing tension between the governor and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. Both de Blasio and Cuomo have offered different strategies for alleviating the state’s homelessness problem, often criticizing one another’s plans. 

De Blasio unveiled his “Home-Stat” plan last month to begin tracking, in real time, the city’s responses to reports of homeless people in the streets. He has also announced a $2.6-billion housing plan, after Cuomo cut funding for rental assistance in 2011. 

“Throwing money at the problem is not always the answer,” Cuomo said in November. To which de Blasio responded, “He obviously isn’t looking at the facts. In fact, resources matter a lot in addressing this problem.”

Regardless of their funding disputes, homelessness is an obvious focus for the two New York political leaders. According the 2015 Annual Homeless Assessment Report by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, 17 US states witnessed an increase in homelessness between 2014 and 2015, with New York having the largest increase of 7,660 more homeless people on the streets.

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