Safety Net Issues

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In August, 2007 Westchester County 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 proposed to replace the shelters with a series of “warming centers”. These centers, more accurately described as “folding chair centers”, were originally required to offer only folding chairs instead of cots. The county told providers that they would not be allowed to replace the folding chairs with cots or beds, even if there were stacks of empty beds lying unused in the next room. It seemed 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 was bad social policy and it was 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 here. 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.

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