Cuomo Hints at New State Intervention in City Shelter System—With Help From Stringer

Gov. Andrew Cuomo. (Photo: Spencer Platt for Getty Images)

Gov. Andrew Cuomo. (Photo: Spencer Platt for Getty Images)

Gov. Andrew Cuomo suggested today that the state would look to tighten its control over the city homeless shelter system—and that his office would enlist the help of Comptroller Scott Stringer, another leading Democratic rival of Mayor Bill de Blasio.

The governor continued his rhetorical campaign against the troubled temporary housing program, repeating attacks he began over the weekend, while speaking at an organized labor rally in Midtown. The event was supposed to focus on the push for a $15-an-hour minimum wage, but Mr. Cuomo used several minutes to lay into the chronic safety and sanitation problems in the shelter system, a system under the ambit of Mr. de Blasio’s Department of Homeless Services.

“Homeless people don’t want to go into the shelter. Why? Because it’s dirty, it’s unsafe, so they’re staying out on the street,” he said, complaining about the public funds committed to such an underperforming program. “We’re paying a billion dollars per year as taxpayers to pay for a shelter system, and the homeless say ‘we’re afraid to go into it?’ And this is just not right.”

Over the weekend, Mr. Cuomo signed an executive order calling upon all city and state agencies to remove homeless people from the street when the temperature hits 32 degrees Fahrenheit—an order that puzzled many, since court decisions have ruled homeless people have a constitutional right to be in public unless endangering themselves or others. When asked by reporters to explain the order, the governor again ripped into the shelter system.

“It’s not rocket science,” he said, recalling his work on homelessness both while his father was governor, and during his own time as secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. “They have to be brought to a shelter system that they are willing to go to.”

“We need an outreach effort to bring people in from the streets, but we need a shelter system that has the capacity, and is safe, clean, decent and habitable, so the homeless will go there,” he continued.

Mr. Cuomo called the situation “unacceptable,” both because of the resulting human suffering and the high cost to taxpayers. He promised a “comprehensive plan” in State of the State address next week, but offered a preview of what the plan will entail, pointing out that the New York State Constitution rests the duty of caring for the homeless on Albany.

“The state regulates the city system. The constitutional responsibility runs to the state. The state delegates the responsibility to local, what they call local service districts, basically cities. We regulate and we reimburse the shelters all across the state,” he said. “If shelters are not up to code, then we are going to be very diligent in our inspection and management of the existing shelter system.”

At a press conference on another topic today, the city’s Human Resources Administration Commissioner Steven Banks indicated the executive order would not change anything about how the city handles the street homeless population during cold weather—outreach teams urge a person to come to a shelter, but cannot force them to go if they’re competent. Asked whether the state had given the city any guidance on how to interpret the order, Mr. Banks said the governor’s counsel, Alphonso David, had clarified the order—in statements to newspapers, not to the city.

“The governor’s counsel made it clear in the newspaper today that the order does not require taking people who are competent off the streets to the shelters—it does require that which our outreach teams does, which is to assess people on a case-by-base basis,” Mr. Banks, who before working for the city ran the Legal Aid Society and often filed suits on behalf of homeless people, said. “This is a situation clearly in which the governor is determined to act, and we evaluated how we should respond to that action, and we appreciated the clarification by the governor’s counsel last night in the newspaper to reiterate that we should not be taking competent people into the shelters.”

Police Commissioner Bill Bratton was more blunt: “I don’t see that the governor’s executive order changes anything that we do, that we haven’t already been doing,” Mr. Bratton said during a press conference at 1 Police Plaza on monthly crime statistics.

Mr. Banks said he first learned of the executive order Saturday night—de Blasio spokeswoman Karen Hinton said that was after a call from the governor’s office to City Hall—and first saw it Sunday.

Mr. Cuomo has been hammering at Mr. de Blasio on the homelessness issue, and is expected to announce further involvement by the state government at his State of the State address this month. But first, he said he would look to Mr. Stringer, the comptroller and another de Blasio critic, for help.

The governor cited Mr. Stringer’s audit of the shelter system from last month, which found the city’s shelters house an enormous population of rats and that 87 percent of shelter units have some kind of pressing safety problem—a report Mr. Cuomo called “damning.” Mr. Cuomo said he would not look to close the city’s temporary housing but to “improve the system, one way or another,” with the comptroller’s help.

“I’m going to be contacting the comptroller, literally this week. I want to sit down with the comptroller, I want to go over his reports, see what he saw, see what he recommends as the remedy, and that will be the starting point,” he said.

The governor’s involvement in the issue comes as Mr. de Blasio ordered his own 90-day review of the city’s homelessness services, led by Mr. Banks, after the abrupt departure of Department of Homelessness Services Commissioner Gilbert Taylor last month.

Cuomo Hints at New State Intervention in City Shelter System—With Help From Stringer