On evenings when the temperature drops to 32 degrees Fahrenheit or lower, New York's police officers are directed to offer people who appear to have inadequate or no shelter to a city shelter where they receive a warm, clean bed, a shower, food and access to a full range of social services and medical care.
If people refuse voluntary transport, appear to have no recourse to shelter and seem unable to care for themselves, the officer may, after on-site consultation with a sergeant, involuntarily transport them to city hospitals for medical and psychiatric evaluations by physicians. The officer and the sergeant, in effect, agree that an individual seems incompetent and is in substantial risk of harm before involuntarily transport occurs.
If the physicians believe the condition of those transported warrants admission, the homeless will be admitted. Otherwise, as with residents of our shelters, they may leave. So far this winter, we have transported more than 500 people, all but 23 of whom were transported voluntarily.
It's a responsible, humane program. We will not, as columnist Richard Cohen stated in a column Dec. 6, treat the death of someone by freezing "as if it were a burst pipe or weather-related traffic tie-up."
Our program has its critics. "You don't create an across-the-board rule," a New York civil liberties lawyer said recently, "that when the temperature reaches 32, anyone who refuses to go to a shelter is mentally ill and dangerous."
Obviously, we have created no such rule. In order to involuntarily transport someone, two police officers must concur that the person has no verifiable recourse to shelter, is in danger if he or she remains outdoors and is not competent to make that determination. Admission to a medical or psychiatric facility occurs only if a doctor deems it appropriate.
People do not freeze to death because they are denied the right to speak freely or the right to vote. They freeze because they do not have or seek shelter from the storm. Our program is intended to provide people with that shelter, especially if, in the judgment of law enforcement and medical personnel, they seem unable or unwilling to find shelter for themselves and are not competent to fend for themselves.
Is it a reasonable program? Well, if you saw a 10-year-old child wandering the streets in the middle of a blizzard, wouldn't you think it worthwhile to make sure that that child has a warm place to go? Of course you would.
Is there anything wrong or inconsistent, then, with trying to make sure that older persons who do not seem to have a clear idea of their own best interest also receive a similar form of protection and are only taken against their will to hospitals when police officers believe them to be incompetent? I don't think so.