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Cuomo's Order Begins, Forcing Homeless Into Shelters In Cold As Mercury Plummets

UPDATED 01.05.15 12:15 a.m.

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) -- Temperatures were dropping down to the teens and below late Monday, as Gov. Andrew Cuomo's executive order requiring homeless people to be removed from the streets in such conditions went into effect.

Cuomo on Sunday signed an executive order requiring homeless people statewide to be removed from the streets and brought to shelters in freezing weather.

The order took effect at midnight Tuesday morning.

Cuomo said the order will protect the state's growing homeless population and people from hypothermia and potential death. The governor said it also requires homeless shelters to extend hours if necessary.

As CBS2's Valerie Castro reported, the homeless were bundled up Monday night on church steps, Fifth Avenue sidewalks, and city street corners – braving the coldest night of the winter so far.

"I have on a sweater; a layer dress, and I'm not cold at all," said Jeanne Oneal, who is homeless.

And many who live on the street consider shelters dangerous.

"I keep trying to do the whole shelter thing, and it winds up just being just crazy," one man said. "It's craziness."

The man said the shelters leave people vulnerable to become victims of a crime.

"Jumped several times; had everything stolen -- I had everything," he said. "It's just very, very dangerous."

Oneal also said she wanted nothing to do with the shelter system.

"Heavens no!" she said "Because I don't want to. I think they're dirty."

Earlier in the day, many homeless people said much the same thing.

"It's a choice you make whether you want to go into the shelters or not," said Michael Booth, a homeless man on the Upper West Side. "There's too much violence in the shelters -- they're very dangerous."

Luis Diaz said he'd rather be at his spot on Eighth Avenue and 38th Street than an unknown shelter.

"There's criminals in there, people just out of jail, there's mentally ill in there," he said. "You wouldn't even let your dog eat the food."

Diaz and his wife, Jennifer, are homeless and were begging in Midtown Monday. They said they will not be dragged into a shelter Monday night – no matter how cold it gets, and no matter what Cuomo or de Blasio may say.

Cuomo on Monday vowed to make the shelters safe, saying he has heard such sentiments frequently since he signed the executive order on removing the homeless from the streets.

"I've spoken to a lawyer for the homeless this morning, who said, 'Look, the right decision is not to go, because it's better from their point of view, and safer to stay on a train or in a subway station where it's warm, because the shelters are more dangerous," Cuomo said.

Kramer asked Cuomo what his office could do about dirty and unsafe shelters.

"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," Cuomo said.

Cuomo also said he will meet with city Comptroller Scott Stringer to fix ideas from existing city shelters. Stringer recently released a report finding deplorable conditions in some shelters.

Stringer said he would be glad to participate, adding: "The homeless crisis in our city demands all hands on deck. My audit of the Department of Homeless Services found children and families living in unsafe shelter units infested with rodents and vermin."

On Sunday, Cuomo had said he was "not going to argue an individual's right to freeze to death."

"There is a philosophy out there that says people have a civil right to sleep on the street and freeze to death if they want to,'' Cuomo said. "I want to argue an individual's human right to housing and services and shelter.''

The governor said he was ready to go to court to defend his order, if necessary.

"If I get sued for keeping people safe and getting people in from the cold because they were endangering themselves then so be it," Cuomo said.

Meanwhile, some see Cuomo's very order regarding the homeless as a political bullying toward de Blasio, in what has been an ongoing rift, CBS2's Janelle Burrell reported.

When asked if he was irked by the governor's actions at an unrelated event in Brooklyn, Mayor Bill de Blasio said only that his "door is always open to work together for the good of the people of New York City."

The mayor, who has been facing criticism for his handling of the homeless issue, unveiled a new initiative last month dedicating 100 NYPD officers to homeless response teams, reaching out to people on the street.

"Now we have new tools, like our HOME-STAT effort, that's our citywide outreach effort that I announced last month, where we're going to put a really substantial number -- hundreds of outreach workers and NYPD officers -- out making sure constantly that if anyone's in need, we get them in and we offer them the services they need," de Blasio said.

The city also already has a non-mandatory program in place, making shelters more accessible during inclement weather. The mayor late Monday issued a Code Blue Warning, in which all New Yorkers were advised to stay warn and call 311 to help anyone at risk – especially those living on the street.

"We take anyone off the streets we believe is in imminent danger," de Blasio told WCBS 880. "That's something NYPD does, that's something our outreach workers do through our homeless services department. So we have that capacity right now under state law and we have done that for years and we will continue to do it."

De Blasio said, "If someone's in danger, we will bring them in – period." As to whether force could be used, the mayor said, "We have used it for years – that's the point."

De Blasio's spokeswoman, Karen Hinton, questioned the legality of Cuomo's order on Sunday.

"We support the intent of the executive order, but to forcibly remove all homeless individuals in freezing weather, as the governor has ordered, will require him to pass state law,'' she said in a statement. "This executive order adds no legal or financial resources to New York City's programs to assist the homeless and merely requires all New York state localities follow many of the same requirements as New York City to shelter families and individuals in need in freezing temperatures.''

Civil rights lawyers and others have also defended homeless citizens who refuse to go to shelters.

"It's a violation of Constitutional rights," Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, told Burrell. "Rounding people up because they're homeless is both illegal and bad policy."

The mayor also agreed that city shelters remain a big problem, 1010 WINS' Glenn Schuck reported.

"The fact is for decades, our shelters have not been safe enough and have not been clean enough," de Blasio said.

Cuomo said the move was not related to the mayor. When pressed, Cuomo admitted his administration needs to do better, WCBS 880's Peter Haskell reported.

"I want this done statewide,'' Cuomo said. "This doesn't have anything to do with Mayor de Blasio specifically except that he is one of the mayors of the state and it will be binding on the City of New York, as it is in every city."

When asked how the city would react if Cuomo deploys state troopers to enforce the order, de Blasio said "I don't want to talk about hypotheticals," WCBS 880's Rich Lamb reported.

As part of the order, Cuomo said the state will "assist local social services districts if they are lacking facilities resources or expertise."

Robert Mascali, former director of the New York City's homeless operations, said providing more drop-in centers that provide minimal services, but no beds, may be the best avenue to helping the homeless in cold weather.

"Once they're in there, then maybe they can be convinced to be transported to a shelter, or church or synagogue bed program," Mascali said.

But one man admitted that he and others will likely just head for the subway if told to move. The city said the homeless may stay in the subway as long as they are not obstructing seats or blocking other riders.

Another man said he would refuse to go anywhere.

"They're probably going to wind up arresting me," he said.

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