Tuesday, October 23, 2007


Karl Bertrand of Greenburgh asked me to post the following commentary on this blog about a new county policy that could result in tragedies. A rally is being held this Thursday from 12-2 at the Main Street Fountains in White Plains.

In August Westchester closed White Plains’ only drop-in shelter. It stopped transferring the overflow from that shelter to other shelters. It forbid shelters from accepting people unless they met all the county’s strict shelter eligibility requirements: i.e. keeping all appointments, having all documents, attending all required treatment, regularly meeting shelter curfews, turning over all but $45/month of their income from work or SSI to reimburse the county for its shelter costs, etc. Literally overnight the county’s safety net system of drop-in shelters went from serving 130+ people nightly in multiple sites across Westchester to having just 40 drop-in beds, with those located only in Yonkers. The county’s plan was simple: follow all our rules or wander the streets, urinate on our buildings, and sleep wherever you can hide.

The county proposes to replace the shelters with a series of “warming centers”. These centers, more accurately described as “folding chair centers”, will offer only folding chairs instead of cots. The county has told providers that they should not replace the folding chairs with cots or beds, even if there were stacks of empty beds lying unused in the next room. It seems the county wants to punish the homeless for not complying with all requirements by in effect ensuring they can never sleep.

Have you ever had a good night’s sleep in a folding chair? Can you imagine trying to sleep in a chair for a week, a month, or an entire winter? Picture how you would feel and act if you were forced to go for weeks without sleep. Now imagine that condition forced on someone who is old, confused, brain damaged, senile, or off their meds. Westchester’s new homeless sleep deprivation policy is bad social policy and it is morally wrong.
There are other problems with the folding chair centers. They will be open only at night, and only from November to May. The idea is that these hours of operation will keep people from freezing on the streets. That is simple-minded. People obviously don’t just freeze when it’s dark. Again, this decision is inhumane, immoral, and wrong-headed social policy.

Winter is coming. These decisions make it more likely that people will die of exposure this winter as they wander looking for places to hide and sleep. That is not hyperbole. In 1989 three homeless people died of exposure in Westchester, prompting residents to carry three empty coffins to a candlelight vigil at the county office building. We can’t let that happen again, not by dismantling the effective safety net we’ve painstakingly constructed over the last 18 years, not here in Westchester, one of America’s richest counties, and not here in our home.

For more information, email the Westchester Homeless Advocacy Response Network (WHARN) at wharn@optonline.net.


Politicus said...

WHARN's heart is clearly in the right place - all of us feel, and fear, the plight of our homeless. This begs the question though. How many of the poor souls we see wandering are in need of custodial care - for physical and/or psychiatric impairments?
Until we look at WHY people are homeless and WHY the existing facilities are inadequate to meet their needs, we have no chance of solving the problem.
Simply throwing scarce resources at the issue has always failed. And those who want to keep the cost of government (and our taxes) down need to think through what is really being requested.

Anonymous said...

My heaven, this is a heavy post. The Judeo-Christian heritage shared by many of us, says that leaving people to sleep and freeze to death in the streets is a definite no-no. On the other hand we all want people to be responsible and accountable for themselves, not expecting hand outs for irresponsible life choices. Some of these folks seem incapable of this responsible behavior.

As I understand it, NY State psychiatric and even private psychiatric facilities, are not in the business of keeping people in their institutions on a long term basis, so it's a matter of stabilizing the mentally ill sick, and turning them back out. If they don't have family or friends to provide support and keep them on their meds, they spiral back down. Even families who want to help find themselves sometimes stressed beyond their ability to cope with the sick person.

I sure have no answers. What do other towns, cities, or even other countries do with this residual problem? What do they do with the sickest and weakest so that they have care - and so that no neighborhood or even commercial area, is unfairly designated as a catch basin for the mentally ill or addicted homeless?

Anonymous said...

What makes a person Homeless,I don't know but my parents made sure that we had a roof over our head and some food on the table.
The problem is the welfare system.
If these homeless people were forced to work rather than receive welfare they would be in a better position.
Let's face it they get everything for free ,but I have to work for it.
The welfare system should be revamped because it will knock the living daylight out of every tax payer.
We have made things easy for individuals who refuse to work.
How much more must we pay in taxes and medical insurance while the ones who receive welfare pay nothing,
Have you ever noticed how many generations in one family can go back to see how long they accepted welfare.
It has turned into an epedemic.
And yet you will find that some of the people work off the books .
I do think the system should be fully studied and changes made before we all go into banruptcy.