Extreme Weather Means City Has to Get Homeless Off the Street, If They Can

Should city government be able to move homeless individuals against their will for their own protection? Experts say options, not orders, are key.

With a potential blizzard looming, Philadelphia is currently in a Code Blue emergency. This means outreach teams will be working into the night to help transport homeless individuals from the street to shelters.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s recent executive order to remove homeless people from the streets in extreme weather, even against their will, has sparked debate about the extent of the Government’s authority over homeless people’s decisions.

In Philadelphia, a Code Blue response consists mostly of extending the operation hours of shelters, increasing capacity at overnight sites, and providing transportation to various emergency shelters.

Teams of outreach professionals, volunteers and PPD officers comb the streets looking for people who appear to be sleeping outdoors. They offer them transportation to a shelter, overnight Café or other emergency housing facilities. But, perhaps surprisingly, not everyone is willing to go to emergency housing.

Laura Weinbaum, vice president of public affairs at homelessness outreach non-profit Project HOME, explains that, “Nobody wants to be outside. But some of what people have experienced before hasn’t been positive. Emergency shelter isn’t for everybody. It’s a crowded place with many rules and structure. For people who have active mental health issues or substance abuse issues, that’s not always a productive option for them.”

If an individual refuses to leave an outdoor location and a police officer or outreach worker thinks their physical wellbeing is in danger, they can get a Court Ordered Transportation to Shelter (COTS) from an on-call City Solicitor and Common Pleas Court Judge.

Marie Nahikian, director of the Office of Supportive Housing, says that these court orders are used “from time to time when people are in difficult situations unable to make decisions for themselves.”

COTS are rare. As Weinbaum mentions, “most people can and will find their way to an indoor alternative.” There are also a number of different options in Philadelphia – provided by governmental and non-governmental organizations — for homeless people with mental illnesses or substance abuse problems. Safe Havens are tailored toward people experiencing mental illness, while Housing First initiatives like Journey of Hope and Pathways to Housing are tailored toward the chronically homeless.

Even though Housing First solutions are seen as largely successful, according to Nahikian, the Office of Supportive Housing has, “about 11 to 12 individuals in Center City that are known to be chronically homeless who refuse housing.”

Weinbaum suggests that timing plays a key role in helping people get off the streets: “The crux of the matter is offering someone the right options in the right moment when they’re ready to make a change.”

While the reality of implementing Cuomo’s order in New York remains to be seen, in Philadelphia there appears to be — for the most part — an understanding: People experiencing homelessness need options and not orders.

If you see someone in need of shelter during this weekend’s storm or during any Code Blue, call the Homeless Outreach Hotline at 215-232-1984.