Friday, 23 June 2023 09:24

The Story of Saratoga’s New Shelter: Sonny and Julie Bonacio’s Generosity Sets An Example In The Quest To Address Homelessness

By John Kaufmann | News
The Story of Saratoga’s New Shelter: Sonny and Julie Bonacio’s Generosity Sets An Example In The Quest To Address Homelessness

The below blog post is written by John Kaufmann.
These opinions do not reflect the views of Saratoga TODAY newspaper.

[Photo by Zack Skowronek/Collective Addition]
[Meg Kelly]
I spoke with Sonny Bonacio about his wife, Julie, and his involvement in establishing the recently opened low-barrier homeless shelter in Saratoga Springs on Adelphi Street.
Sonny told me:
"The encampment of homeless people at the city's garage just seemed to be going from bad to worse. Everybody was talking about the problem of homelessness and the situation in the garage but nothing concrete seemed to be being done about it. Julie and I decided, ok let's make something happen."
Sonny told me he called on Meg Kelly, who works for him, to lead a team to actually do what needed to be done.
Kelly, in turn, enlisted Sybil Newell (executive director of RISE) and Lindsey Connors (associate executive director of RISE). RISE Housing and Support Services provides a variety of housing and support services.
For the new shelter to happen, the hard and unromantic work that would bring it into existence needed to be done. There is no way to minimize the scale of the task they faced.
In addition to the $168,000.00 rent for the facility for two years provided by Sonny and Julie, the building required major work. It needed a hot water system to serve thirty individuals, air conditioning, a washer/dryer, fencing, an office, security cameras, furniture, etc. Most of this was paid for by Sonny and Julie.
Establishing the shelter meant:
1.    Finding a location
2.    Negotiating with the owner of the property that would be utilized.
3.    Finding the money to pay the rent.
4.    Determining what had to be done to retrofit the building to make it usable.
5.    Finding the resources to pay for that work.
6.    Enlisting the people to clean and paint the facility (a variety of RISE staff, Bonaccio people, and volunteers)
7.    Finding the beds, tables, couches, etc. to make it attractive and habitable. (Steve Sullivan, the owner of the Olde Bryan Inn Restaurant, donated most of the furniture.)
All this came together with the opening of the new shelter on June 12.
This was what it looked like inside before:
And now after:
Humility and Acknowledgement of the Work of Others: A Rarity
So all the city needed to do to complete the establishment of this shelter project was to designate an entity to operate the facility and fund it.
Mayor Kim's first response was classic. He crafted a resolution that violated New York State statutes for the award of contracts. The resolution committed the city to an indeterminant amount of public money to fund the project and arbitrarily named RISE the manager.
First of all, the award of work must be competitive. It required a request for proposals (RFP) to be executed before any award. This is not an autocracy. The Mayor does not have the authority to simply award work to a private entity no matter how laudable.
Second, the amount to be spent must be made clear and based on some publicly established standards.
It would be most interesting to learn how a resolution this inept evolved. Did Mayor Kim draft this himself? Did his Deputy, Angella Rella, draft this? What role, if any, did our two City Attorneys play in its drafting?
Here is the original flawed resolution:
Here is the video of Kim postponing a vote on his resolution until a special meeting;
In the end, the Bonacios, Meg Kelly, and the folks at Rise handed the city a carefully wrapped package that required almost no work, but even then, Kim and his Council could not proceed without badly stumbling.
If we had real transparency and public accountability, we might discover how this fiasco came about. We don't have real transparency, and we will never know.
How Much Credit Does Kim Deserve For This Shelter?
To be fair, at one meeting, Kim acknowledged the "contributions" of the Bonacio/RISE team.
Having said that, Mayor Kim is in full campaign mode. He has sent out a slew of expensive mailers in which he credits himself for the new shelter, and he has appeared on television and in newsprint crediting himself for the shelter.
The reality is that he did no more for the shelter than vote along with his four colleagues to fund it. This is not to dismiss the importance of that vote but to credit himself with the shelter is truly a bridge too far.
It is important to cut through the spin to understand how the new shelter came about and how shameless and cynical it is for Mayor Kim to portray to the public that he played a key role in making this happen.
It was Sonny and Julie Bonacio, along with Meg Kelly and Sybil Newell (executive director of RISE) and Lindsey Connors (associate executive director of RISE), who did the heavy lifting to make the shelter a reality.
This team handed the City Council a carefully designed facility that only required the Council to fund its operation and they couldn't even do that correctly.
Mayor Kim did nothing more than his four colleagues when he voted with them to fund the project based not on any analysis done by Kim's extensive planning department but on a proposal crafted by the Bonacio/Kelly/Newell/Connors team.
This flagrant exploitative claim by Kim offers some cautionary tale regarding most of Kim's other claims of what he has achieved in office.
The Appointment Of Committees Is Not The Same As Solving Problems
As important as opening this new shelter is it needs to be remembered that this is designed to be only a temporary solution to the city's homeless problem while the city works to develop a permanent answer. Ron Kim has assigned that task to a Homeless Task Force he has created that is scheduled to present their plan early this summer.
As a long-time observer of politics in general and politics in Saratoga Springs in particular, I have observed how politicians routinely create committees to create the appearance that they are doing something.
The appointments to these committees are usually people with some interest in the issue who are flattered by the acknowledgment of their selection. These committees rarely, if ever, have the focus and management orientation required to actually get anything done.
The record of these committees is abominable, but politicians keep creating them.
Mayor Kim generates these committees constantly, and they have not produced anything that would constitute an achievement so far. I am hoping that Tom Roohan, as head of the Homeless Task Force, will prove the exception and find a place for a permanent shelter. Tom has what it takes, but he will have to overcome the inertia of the far too large committee Mayor Kim has saddled him with.
A Historical Note
This is not the first time Meg Kelly has stepped up to aid the homeless population in Saratoga Springs. During her tenure as mayor, Meg Kelly walked the walk.
During the COVID crisis, there was grave concern about the potential threat of the homeless not only infecting themselves but spreading it to others in the community.
The Saratoga County Board of Supervisors was reticent to provide temporary shelter for the homeless to contain the problem.
As the bottom had fallen out of the lodging industry, Kelly negotiated a deal to have the Holliday Inn take the homeless in. As the county initially declined to cover the cost, Kelly convinced the City Council to front the cost. She subsequently successfully involved Scott Earl of Twin Bridges Trash Removal who replenished the $60,000.00 in rent the city had laid out.
As a result, not one of those she helped house contracted the disease.
Mayor Kelly then worked with RISE Housing and Support Services and city court Judge Francine Vero to establish a community outreach court. The success rate was stunning. RISE found housing for 83% of those referred to the court.
Regrettably, with the election of the new administration in 2021, Public Safety Commissioner Montagnino effectively stopped having his officers issue tickets to the homeless which would bring them to Vero's court, and this excellent program collapsed.
This breakdown helped usher in the "conversion" of our city parking lots into "residences," concentrating twenty to thirty homeless squatting there.
It has been frustrating to me that Meg Kelly has not received the acknowledgment she richly deserves in her work to aid the homeless.
Commissioner Sanghvi Ghosts The Blogger
The city has committed itself to spending $239,385.00 to pay for the operation of the homeless shelter for the balance of this year. The city also has indicated its plan to provide over four hundred thousand dollars for 2024.
On April 25, 2023, I wrote to Finance Commissioner Minita Sanghvi asking her what her expectations are of maintaining that kind of support in the future.
"Do you see being able to maintain the funding for the RISE program indefinitely?  If so, how do you expect to pay for future contracts beyond next year?"
I have not had a response.
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