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Cuomo's order on sheltering homeless has little impact on Genesee County, which has long provided assistance

By Howard B. Owens

The governor's recent executive order on how to deal with homeless people in local municipalities during cold weather won't have much impact on Genesee County, said Eileen Kirkpatrick, the county's director of Social Services.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo's order has been widely reported to mandate that local law enforcement require any homeless person found out and about in freezing weather to be taken off the streets and placed in an appropriate shelter.

That isn't exactly what the governor ordered, Kirkpatrick said.

"Neither law enforcement nor DSS has any legal authority to put anybody anyplace they don't want to go," Kirkpatrick said.

The order doesn't change anything for how lack-of-shelter situations have long been handled in Genesee County, she said.

All of the law enforcement agencies, along with the Mental Health department, have long worked well with DSS to help resolve lack-of-shelter situations.

When a cop finds a person who is seemingly without shelter during freezing weather, the officer tries to determine if the person is intoxicated or has a mental health issue that would inhibit the person from making a rational decision about his or her own safety.

If the person is intoxicated, the officer has the authority to seek medical treatment for the individual.

If there appears to be a mental health issue, mental health workers are contacted and the person is taken in, usually to Warsaw's hospital, where a mental health evaluation will be made to determine if the person is capable of making a rational decision about his or her shelter.

If a person is capable of making a rational decision, then the decision to stay on the street or not is up to that individual and, as Kirkpatrick said, neither law enforcement nor DSS has the authority to force that person into a shelter.

If the person, however, would like shelter, there are options.

When the warming shelter is open, as it is tonight, women and children can be taken to the shelter.

Males without children can be given a bus ticket to either Rochester or Buffalo and directions to a shelter that accepts men. If the busses are not running, an after-hours DSS worker can help arrange for a room at a local hotel or motel.

Adults judged to be competent to make their own decisions always have the choice to stay on the street, but when officials find children without shelter, Child Protective Services always has the authority to take the child to an appropriate shelter.

There doesn't seem to be the stereotypical homelessness issue in Batavia that might exist in larger cities, Kirkpatrick said. You don't expect to find people sleeping under bridges here.

However, there is an issue with people being "inadequately housed," she said. These might be people living nine to a two-bedroom trailer, or who stay with different people throughout the week or in another shelter-insecure situation.

Sometimes it's just a financial issue. There are also people who have such a bad reputation for destroying property among local landlords that they find it difficult to secure a rental.

In all cases, DSS has programs in place to help people who need assistance with shelter, she said. If there is somebody without shelter and they're competent to make that decision, then that is their decision. Typically, they've made that decision because they don't want to go along with the rules that go along with getting assistance from DSS.

"There are some people who are in a perpetual state of homelessness because that's their choice as an adult," Kirkpatrick said. "There is assistance available for anybody who wants to abide by the rules and what New York State dictates. These aren't Eileen Kirkpatrick's rules. These are the state rules."

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