SARATOGA SPRINGS - She was 54 and without a home when she lay across a loading dock, not far from the school where she’d attended classes as a young girl. Her body was discovered the next day, on a frigid December morning on the city’s west side.
A community of residents and clergy, business leaders, politicians and everyday folks were motivated to action that winter of 2013. In quick order, they came together. Their goal: creating a space where people without a home can find shelter during frigid nights, get fed a warm meal, recharge their bodies, then head back out into the light of the next day to try and secure a more stable standing.
A temporary emergency shelter was launched that Christmas Eve at St. Peter’s Parish Center. Since that time, a series of temporary winter shelters have been sited at a variety of venues across town. From the west-of Broadway Salvation Army building, to the east-of Broadway Soul Saving Station Church, each move faced push-back from some residents who lived in the community where the shelter planned to relocate. Each group expressed a desire for a shelter to be sited, followed with the caveat: just not here.
Soul Saving Station church on Henry Street has hosted a temporary Code Blue shelter the past three years but soon will repurpose the space where the temporary shelter operated, making it not a viable winter option for Code Blue. Enter Presbyterian New England Congregational Church.
“We are talking about a partnership with Shelters of Saratoga to turn our Nolan House – which is our big, Victorian brick house - into Code Blue,” said Rev. Kate Forer, a Massachusetts native who became Senior Pastor at Presbyterian New England Congregational Church in 2016. “We had a meeting with our congregation this past weekend to introduce the idea to them. And we also had a meeting with our neighbors to introduce the idea to them as well. “
A permanent shelter location was thought to be found in 2017 on Walworth Street, where a Code Blue structure would be built on property belonging to Shelters of Saratoga – the organization who operates the Code Blue program. Local business owner Ed Mitzen, and his wife Lisa announced they would pay the costs for the new, permanent shelter to be built. In September 2018, however, following a lawsuit filed by local residents challenging the proposed shelter expansion as not being in accordance with zoning regulation, a Saratoga County Supreme Court judge nullified previously granted approvals by the city’s Zoning Board of Appeals and the Planning Board which would have allowed the shelter to be built.
Meanwhile, the need for a shelter is strong. Since opening in the 2013-14 winter season and through 2017-18 – the latest figures available, the number of those seeking shelter has increased each year. During the 2017-18 winter season, Code Blue was open 162 nights, served more than 8,000 meals, and provided sleeping quarters for a total of 6,480 overnight stays – or on average, 40 nightly guests. Presbyterian New England Congregational Church - or PNECC - was also open during 90 of those nights to care for “overflow” guests.
“The congregation is open to the idea – this is part of the core mission of who we are as a church,” says Rev. Forer. “For over 40 years, our mission has been about serving vulnerable populations. Our mission statement is that we are working to make God’s love and justice real in our world,” the pastor said. “This homeless population is already here on our campus and Code Blue does not have a place to go for the 2019-2020 season. We feel it is our duty and obligation to care for our brothers and sisters and to care for them with the necessary services to – not only survive - but to thrive.”
An executive order issued by Gov. Andrew Cuomo directs emergency shelters to operate when temperatures drop below 32 degrees. Code Blue’s temporarily housing at the Soul Saving Station Church often found the 41-bed shelter at full capacity.
Any alterations required to site an emergency shelter at PNECC would be minimal. “The soup kitchen is right next door, so we wouldn’t need a kitchen,” said Karen Gregory, executive director of Shelters of Saratoga. “There would have to be some additions - bathrooms and showers – but there would be very limited changes.”
The organization anticipates the facility will house 55 beds, which would likely eliminate the need for an off-site overflow emergency center.
“We’re having the conversation. Can this happen at the church? What does it look like, and how do we involve the community members in the conversation?” Gregory says. “We still have lots of steps and lots of conversations (to have) about it.” A preliminary schedule of future meetings is expected to be completed next week.
“We’re still in the talking phase, but I am reaching out to every member of the community, every member of the county, every member in the city in their government positions and saying: please come to the table, have a conversation with us and help us to find a permanent solution for Code Blue,” Gregory said. “It’s desperately needed and there’s a governor’s mandate directing the county do that, but I need the county’s support in order to really move that program and that project forward. There needs to be a collaboration.”
Earlier conversations to potentially site the shelter by Bethesda Episcopal Church on Washington Street didn’t pan out due to the shelter’s proposed location in the building - being on the fourth floor could create issues and obstacles, Gregory says - as well as the rent. “It’s not something we could financially endure and still keep our programming intact,” Gregory says. The Mitzens remain on board, Gregory added. “They are strongly supporting Code Blue and are staying on as donors and trying to help us find a solution. They’ve been incredibly generous, kind and patient.”
Discussions regarding PNECC have stipulated that the church would continue to own the Nolan House building and SOS would run the Code Blue program. At some point, a permanent location will still need to be secured.
“I think we have to see how this goes, but I am totally open to a collaboration anywhere in Saratoga that would support this, and I will continue to work to follow the governor’s mandate,” Gregory said.