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Credit: Ilana Wurman

It’s a cold January morning. The snow is falling, so you clutch your jacket close to your body and walk quickly to your dorm. As you rush to get inside from the cold, many families end up sleeping outside in Philadelphia in the snow and the below-freezing temperatures.

Despite the wintry conditions, the city of Philadelphia is not forcing the mentally-competent homeless off of the streets due to constitutional rights concerns. Meanwhile, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo tried to address the problem but achieved little success.

At any given point in time, it is estimated that there are an average of 650 people living on the streets of Philadelphia, according to the nonprofit Project HOME, a Philadelphia-based organization, whose mission is to “empower adults, children, and families to break the cycle of homelessness and poverty, to alleviate the underlying causes of poverty, and to enable all of us to attain our fullest potential as individuals and as members of the broader society,” according to its website.

During the winter months, Philadelphia employs a Code Blue system. When the city declares a Code Blue, shelters must provide 24-hour outreach coverage, and an emergency housing network must provide access to vacant beds. Outreach teams and the police can then implement the Court Ordered Transportation to Shelter procedure.

But this Court Ordered Transportation to Shelter requires an outreach team to contact the City Solicitor’s office and to obtain a judge’s approval for the specific case. Code Blue does not permit the forced removal of the homeless off of the streets in cold weather.

According to the city of Philadelphia’s website, the city calls a Code Blue when temperatures fall below 32 degrees Fahrenheit with precipitation or when there is a wind chill temperature of 20 degrees Fahrenheit.

2013 College graduate Lauren Hitt, a spokesperson for Mayor Jim Kenney, noted that the city called a Code Blue last Friday due to the temperatures and impending snowstorm. Pursuant to the Code Blue, people who saw a homeless individual on the street were “advised to call Project HOME at 215-232-1984,” Hitt said.

Gov. Cuomo issued an executive order on Jan. 3 to direct the homeless to shelters in the freezing weather. He authorized police and state agencies to forcibly move the homeless who did not find shelter on their own. The executive order cited a “threat to the life, health, and safety of the State’s citizens ... including the risk of hypothermia and potentially death” as a reason for the action. Gov. Cuomo referred to existing state law that permitted “involuntary placement, to protect individuals from harming themselves or others."

After protests from Mayor Bill de Blasio and Long Island county executives, Newsday, a local Long Island newspaper, reported that the governor appeared to “backtrack” on the part of the order that forcibly removes the mentally competent off the streets. The mayor and county executives had promised only to forcibly remove the mentally ill and offer shelter to the mentally competent.

While both cities are making efforts to provide shelter to the homeless during the cold, they have not been able to forcibly remove the mentally-competent homeless off the streets. According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, cities violate an individual’s Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches and seizures when conducting such sweeps.

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