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‘Bold’ order by governor is challenge for Buffalo shelters

Social service providers greeted Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s executive order to bring homeless people inside during freezing weather with praise, questions and a reality check.

“It’s bold,” said Stuart L. Harper, executive director and CEO of the Buffalo City Mission and Cornerstone Manor, which provide long-term and emergency shelter for homeless men and women. “I think his heart’s in the right place.”

But Harper and other officials wonder how much it will cost and how to pay for it.

In previous winters, local homeless shelters opened up their doors when the temperatures turned frigid enough to declare a Code Blue emergency. They sounded 52 Code Blue alerts last winter when the air temperature dropped to 15 degrees or lower, or when the wind chill factor slipped into the single digits.

Cuomo’s order, which goes into effect Tuesday, requires local governments to remove homeless people by force, if necessary, once the temperature drops to 32 degrees or below.

“At 32 degrees, that’s pretty much the entire winter,” Harper said.

“We’re trying to figure out what the effect is going to be,” he said, as well as how to pay for it.

It costs about $3,000 to staff and supply a Code Blue night. Staff members set up the cots, take the vans out for pickup, provide and prepare meals, and oversee the shelters. Some of the men living in the mission’s long-term housing help in the evenings, Harper said. The city allots $1,400 per night for up to 70 Code Blues each winter.

Monday was the fourth Code Blue of this season and the last night based on the lower temperature guideline.

“We’re trying to estimate how much (the extra nights) will cost, based on history,” Harper said. “Last season started out slowly, but we had Code Blue for almost all of February.”

The Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority provides free bus service to the shelter at St. Luke’s, and the City Mission works closely with the Lt. Col. Matt Urban Hope Center and Lake Shore Behavioral Health to locate people who need to get inside.

“They have built relationships with those living on the streets,” Harper said. “It’s a tremendous partnership.”

Jason J. Flores, outreach supervisor at the Hope Center, agreed that having the governor’s attention can be a good thing.

“I’m all for it because it protects people living on the street,” Flores said.

He doesn’t know, however, whether the second part of the governor’s order – forcing the homeless into a shelter if they won’t come voluntarily – is workable. Others in the state also question whether it’s legal.

“We’re not a jail. The City Mission’s not a jail. I don’t know how they would enforce it,” Flores said.

“I get it. We’ve come across chronics (long-term homeless) who are under a blanket that’s stiff with ice, and then you have to use common sense,” Flores said. “You let them know that you can’t leave them out there. We would call crisis services or an ambulance to get them to a hospital. We won’t let them freeze to death.”

Harper said that two homeless people are known to have frozen to death last winter, but gauging how many might refuse shelter is difficult.

“It’s hard to know how many people are not here,” Harper said. “The reason that they’re staying outside has a lot to do with mental health. We’ve closed all the mental health facilities. We’ve closed the alcohol treatment facilities. Where do they expect people to go?”

He agreed with Flores that they are not equipped to force people to stay for the night.

“If they don’t want to stay, they’ll just leave out another door. We can’t force anybody to stay here,” Harper said. “We won’t force anybody to stay here.”

For now, the nonprofits are working with local government agencies to come up with a plan for more Code Blue nights and for how to pay for them.

“If there is to be a Code Blue every single night, we have the staff. It’s a matter of funds,” Flores said.

“The goal is to make sure that nobody dies,” Harper said. “We can do it as long as we keep the politics out of it and get people out of the cold and into the warm. The governor has indicated he has some money to help us, and we’ll take him at his word.”