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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.
SARATOGA SPRINGS – The nine boxes have stood their ground, mounted atop posts up-and-down Broadway, since the fall of 2016.
Placed in strategically deliberate locations, the program designed to aid the homeless is the brainchild of the Saratoga Springs Downtown Assessment District. Its purpose is to provide pedestrians a means of making monetary donations directly to services that benefit the local homeless community, as opposed to randomly handing money to someone panhandling on the street, where the end result of the donation wouldn’t be easily known. By all accounts, the caretakers of the program say it has been a success.
One hundred percent of the funds collected by the boxes are forwarded by the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce to Shelters of Saratoga, which provides assistance to people facing homelessness.
“It helps with our outreach program and we’re also able to get items and supplies we need,” says Michael Finocchi, executive director of Shelters of Saratoga, which provides care via through the Code Blue emergency shelter, its outreach program, drop-in centers, case managed shelter and affordable housing. “There’s also been a huge change downtown on Broadway. People aren’t hanging out like they did. They don’t have to sit downtown with a cup when we can get something for them.”
Twelve boxes were made, each decorated by a different artist via Saratoga Arts, and depict everything from a leaf-laden autumnal landscape, to a hamburger atop a classic red-and-white checkerboard tabletop and a long winding road zagging through a contemporary terrain. Nine were installed. The other three are still looking for a home where the collections could be easily managed.
In the first year of implementation, the boxes collected approximately $7,500, says Harvey Fox, chairman of the Saratoga Springs Downtown Assessment District, and one of the initiators of the donation box plan.
“We’ve collected twenties and fifties and donations of up to $100. The point is to help the less fortunate, to help provide opportunities through S.O.S. for safe shelter, training, and jobs. That’s what it’s all about,” says Fox, who adds he has seen the good the project does first-hand, having met folks who have been directly helped since the program was initiated. “It is working and when you talk to people and listen to their stories, it really is moving.”
The “tamper-proof” boxes have lived up to their security expectations. Fox said there have been no incidents reported of attempts to burglarize the boxes. Other communities have not been as fortunate.
In May 2015, The Positive Change Donation Program was implemented by the Downtown Berkeley Association in California. Donation boxes were installed throughout downtown Berkeley to encourage residents to give their spare change to those in need, with donations targeted to help fund social services that reduce homelessness.
“It was great in a lot of ways, but unfortunately we had to discontinue the program because people were using crowbars and breaking into them,” explains John Caner, CEO of the Downtown Berkeley Association. “Perhaps in Saratoga Springs you don’t have those kinds of issues. Here, it was very sad when we had to end it, because it was working.”
Locally, S.O.S. receives the funds on a quarterly basis and re-distributes it as is deemed most appropriate at that time. “We also started donating money back to other agencies that are dealing with same population,” says Finocchi, noting organizations such as the Franklin Community Center, Wellspring, and the Giving Circle – who operate a Thursday night program that provides a hot meal for the homeless population outside the Presbyterian Church – as being among local agencies whose programs have directly benefited from community donations.
SARATOGA SPRINGS – The city based Code Blue emergency shelter, which has had a transitory geographic existence since its opening in late 2013, has one final hurdle before landing in a permanent home.
Earlier this week, the city Zoning Board of Appeals upheld its May 2017 interpretation that the proposed new permanent shelter on Walworth Street is zoning compliant. The ZBA’s unanimous 7-0 decision came in the aftermath of a legal challenge to halt its development, led by a group of 22 area residents, claiming the development is not a permitted use within the Urban Residential Zoning District.
Following the ZBA’s Jan. 8 approval, the 22 Franklin Street residents opposed to the project issued a statement saying they were disappointed by the “erroneous determination” and that they will be identifying their next steps and actions “in the near future." The group has until Feb. 7 to file an appeal. Claudia Braymer, an attorney representing the residents, said on Wednesday the group had yet to make a final decision regarding an appeal.
The Code Blue Saratoga program was born from the tragic death of Nancy Pitts. The 54-year-old mother of two sought shelter on a Williams Street porch during a frigid December night in 2013. She was discovered by police the next morning. Within days of the homeless woman’s death, a cooperative partnership between then mayor-elect Joanne Yepsen, non-profit organizations, and members of the community was initiated, and a plan set in motion to site an emergency shelter in the city. Since that time, a series of temporary shelters have been housed at St. Peter’s Parish Center, the west-of Broadway Salvation Army building, and the east-of Broadway Soul Saving Station Church, and at times met with public opposition by some residents who lived near the location where the shelter was to be sited.
Last February, local business owner Ed Mitzen announced he would donate the funds to construct a permanent Code Blue homeless shelter atop Shelters of Saratoga property on Walworth Street. Shelters of Saratoga, or S.O.S., oversees the Code Blue emergency program and operates a case managed shelter and a twice-a-week “drop-in” center - which draws 20 to 22 people each day - at its two existing buildings on the property.
S.O.S. Executive Director Michael Finocchi said having the Code Blue emergency shelter on its grounds benefit those seeking help and provide a greater continuum of services. “First off, we won’t have to go looking for another (temporary emergency) place every year and it will also enable us to share services between Shelters of Saratoga and Code Blue – housing services, employment services; we can offer more to these individuals. This project will allow us to more easily connect homeless individuals with the support services they need.”
The city based shelter initially would open when temperatures dipped below 20 degrees Fahrenheit, but in early 2017 Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order which directed emergency shelters to operate when temperatures drop below 32 degrees. Currently, Code Blue is temporarily housed at the Soul Saving Station Church on Henry Street, where since mid-November the 41-bed shelter has been at full capacity. The proposed new building will consist of approximately 6,500 square feet of space and house about 50 beds. The two-story building is slated to include a large kitchen, laundry room, men’s and women’s sleeping rooms, multiple showers and bathrooms, a large storage area for donated food and clothing, and a small Code Blue office.
On a single night in 2017, 553,742 people were experiencing homelessness in the United States and more than one-fifth of those people were children, according to the Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which was released December 2017. The number of people experiencing homelessness increased in 14 states between 2007 and 2017, and the largest absolute increases were in New York State – up by 43 percent during that time, according to the report, which notes that there are about 89,500 who are homeless in New York. And while New York may also have a greater population than many others, the national average state-by-state indicates 17 people per 10,000 are homeless, while in New York that ratio jumps to 45 people per 10,000 - a ranking that places N.Y. third worst in the nation.
The proposed permanent shelter Code Blue location heads for final approval back to the Planning Board, which meets for a workshop – a pre-meeting gathering – on Tuesday and for its full meeting Thursday, Jan. 18 when it is anticipated to discuss the matter. The proposal is not expected to meet much resistance; the Planning Board was unanimous in its support of a special use permit and site plan review for the facility, last July.
“It’s got to go back to the Planning Board, but we won’t have to go through the whole process like we did the first time,” Finocchi said. “It was already there before, and the vote was 7-0. Once we get our approval we can file for a building permit.”
Depending on the length of this year’s spring thaw, the site housing the permanent Code Blue shelter building could be operational by the 2018-19 winter season, which begins next November.
Mayor Meg Kelly, who began her term Jan. 1, thanked the ZBA following Monday’s unanimous agreement. “Code Blue is a community problem and we all must come together as a community to solve this problem. We are better as a group to help the homeless during these brutally cold nights,” Kelly said.
The proposed Code Blue permanent shelter:
SARATOGA SPRINGS – A project to site a permanent homeless shelter on the city’s west side is being challenged by a group of nearly two dozen people who are taking legal action to halt its development.
Slated to be built on Walworth Street - adjacent to the current Shelters of Saratoga which owns the property, and funded by local business owner Ed Mitzen, and his wife Lisa - the two-story Code Blue structure to house about 50 beds has moved through the city’s Land Use boards and was anticipated to open Nov. 1, in advance of the winter season.
During the past few months, many who have spoken at public hearings in opposition to siting the shelter have delicately tiptoed through a not-in-my-backyard verbalization to urge that a shelter be built elsewhere. The lawsuit, which was filed Wednesday against the city Planning Board and Zoning Board of Appeals, claims the project doesn’t fit into the neighborhood.
“The bottom line is it does not meet the definition of a neighborhood rooming house and it doesn’t meet the criteria for a special use permit – those are the two main claims,” said Glens Falls based attorney Claudia Braymer, who is representing those opposed to the chosen location chosen of the project.
“Obviously we want to help people who are homeless – most of my clients have expressed that to me - but it’s a matter of garnering good community support though, in finding the right location for it,” Braymer said.
Last month, city Republican mayoral candidate Mark Baker released a statement to say the shelter proposal “does not adequately respect our neighborhoods and current residents,” and suggested that a city shelter may bring more people in need from outside the community to Saratoga Springs.
Current Democrat City Mayor Joanne Yepsen, who in December 2013 helped spearhead the first temporary emergency shelter in the city, responded that Baker's accusation that the temporary shelter has contributed to the homeless problem was “misinformed, uncompassionate, and just plain mean spirited.”
Siting an emergency shelter at a permanent location has been a high priority following a series of temporary shelter venues that have been staged at St. Peter’s Parish Center, the Salvation Army building and the Soul Saving Station Church.
Officials at Shelters of Saratoga – who currently operate two other buildings on the Walworth Street property as well as a twice-a-week “drop-in” center – say having the Code Blue shelter in close proximity to the case-managed shelters maximizes the opportunity to provide a full continuum of services and more easily connect homeless individuals with the support services they need.
Between 2007 and 2015 homelessness in New York increased by 41 percent, according to the 2015 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Between 2014 and 2015 alone, New York State’s homeless population jumped by 7,660 - the largest increase in the nation for the one-year period.
The average number of overnight guests at the temporary Code Blue shelter this past winter season – 41 per night – was an all-time high. An executive order signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo directs emergency shelters to operate when temperatures drop below 32 degrees.
SARATOGA SPRINGS — Meeting Deanna Hensley for the first time is like meeting an old friend, a great quality in a homeless outreach coordinator. Her giant heart shows in her welcoming smile and gentle, fierce protection of Saratoga Springs’ homeless neighbors. On Friday, August 12, Hensley invited me, Congressman Paul Tonko (NY-20), and congressional staffer Marilyn Smith to ride along with her during her outreach work for Shelters of Saratoga (SOS).
We began in Congress Park, meeting at the park’s north entrance in front of her white van. “I usually have the RV, but it’s in the shop,” said Hensley. “I park in the same spot so they know to look for me here. It’s not rare for me to make 25 contacts in a day.”
It was a beautiful morning, a summer breeze lifting spirits while cooling the temperature across the green, tree-dotted grassy expanse. Mothers were pushing strollers, a visiting family was tasting the spring waters at the pump, and joggers were getting their morning exercise. And here and there, among the typical Saratoga Season crowd, a few men slowly walked in, found a shade tree, and lay down to sleep. One here, one there, seemingly random but some had their favorite spots. We watched as Hensley walked over to each of them, checking to see if they needed medical assistance or water or even a pair of socks. “Sometimes they’ve been drinking and are sleeping it off,” said Hensley. “Sometimes they are angry, or sick, or just have headaches. They don’t pay attention to hydration. They appreciate someone out here noticing and saying ‘hey, drink water.’” Hensley is careful, and listens well to the homeless neighbors in her care so she can keep them and herself safe. “We do have people who take advantage and try to prey on the weaker ones,” she said. “You never know what you might find walking up to someone, just have to be ready for anything. I do my research, so I know whether or not I’m walking up on a sex offender or someone with a violent history. So far I have not had anyone threaten me, and I think it’s because you have to show you care. They know me out here, know I can stand this close, and they have nothing to fear from me. If they ask for a hug, I’ll give it. One guy told me he hadn’t had a hug in 8 years. Can you imagine?” She opened the back of the van (filled with water bottles, t-shirts, baby wipes, foot powder, ramen noodles, toothbrushes, toothpaste, and sometimes tarps and sleeping bags) as Shawn walked over, a former roofer suffering from alcoholism and other issues. “Hi, Shawn, how are you feeling today?” asked Hensley, as if she’d known him forever. “Want some raviolis?” Shawn stood a little hesitantly at first, unsure of us strangers around the van, but Tonko reached out to shake his hand and learn a little more about him. Shawn had once had a family, a home in Ballston Lake, and a job roofing and siding, but one mistake led to another, and like many in trouble who lack support, he tried to find solace in alcohol, and has been homeless 9 years and 7 months as a result. His daughter, Michaela Rose, is 10 now. “It makes me not think,” he said about the drinking. “I don’t want to think anymore.” He sat down on the pavement between the van and a parked car to empty his sneaker. Hensley put a bottle of water by him and some food in his backpack. His blue eyes would make Sinatra proud, and his ready smile belied the serious resignation in his eyes. “I’m going to die soon,” the 34-year-old told us with an unnervingly quiet calm that made me want to check his pockets for anything he might hurt himself with. “I gave up on myself. I’m in such rough shape. It is what it is.” And he smiled, as if he were trying to make us feel better. Hensley and Tonko stepped aside and spoke urgently with him, and later Hensley told me that she wished she could throw a burlap sack over his head and just take him to a doctor, but she can’t take him unless he wants to go. According to Hensley, 85 to 90 percent of the people she meets tell her they have a pain inside that they can’t kill, so they try to kill it with alcohol. “There are so many like Shawn,” she said. “Good people, locals. That guy over there was an engineer at GE, worked 31 years. His wife got sick, and he lost everything to debts. Now he’s on the street.” Tonko told me he felt it was important to see the situation with his own eyes. “There are too many faceless discussions about homeless solutions,” he said. “Anecdotal evidence is a powerful tool to get things done. If our neighbors are homeless and struggling, we need to find a way to address their needs with care and dignity.” Hensley has so many stories to tell the Congressman. She talked about Alex, a Saratoga native who turned 21 on Thursday, Aug 25. His mom moved him from home to home, until he finally ended up in foster care, “…where bad things happened,” said Hensley. “He was severely abused in foster care.” “Locally?” I asked. “Locally,” she answered seriously. After that, she said, Alex didn’t feel safe in any system, not even SOS. Another man walked up as well as a teenager and a woman. Shawn and the three additions all knew each other and they all knew Hensley. The scene could almost have been a family out for a picnic, but one was joking one minute and crying the next, and the youngest played it cool, showing me his prison tattoo. He had good news – he had just landed a job putting labels on bottles at a local brewery. They needed care, though, including showers and a safe place to sleep. One homeless man reached up to his head, politely excused himself, and bent down to swipe the dust from his scalp, which showered down as if he’d spent a week at the beach. Even he was surprised and said he had been careful to sleep on the sleeping bag and not in the dirt. Not one of us stepped back from him, though, and it was clear that even those of us just visiting couldn’t help but have our hearts reach out to this fellow needing a little human compassion. Hensley began her work with SOS in March of this year, and has already built trust and helped many members of the local homeless community. Her vast experience stems from her work with the homeless in Las Vegas, Nevada, where she worked in a few different capacities, including in an adolescent acute unit for several years. When asked what she hopes to gain from hosting ride-alongs with reporters and elected officials, Hensley said, “We need easier access to detox and rehabilitation facilities, places that won’t keep them for only a few hours.” Currently, Hensley drives her “guys” to either St. Peter’s in Albany or St. Mary’s in Troy for those services. Anecdotally, she hears from homeless individuals that local places will take them in for three or four hours and then discharge them. Hensley hopes that legislators at the state and federal levels will understand that health coverage for the homeless population needs to cover longer-term detoxification, so it is out of their systems and they are given education and support to keep it out, as well as counseling services to address the underlying problems that made them become addicted to substances or alcohol in the first place. “Once you treat the addiction, you have to treat the person, and we need that. I will put them in the RV and take them, then and there, if they say they are ready for rehab,” said Hensley. “I don’t want to risk losing that window.” Hensley was glad Tonko came along and spent so much time on the ride along. At one point, she told him, “Normally they clam up around strangers, but they really opened up with you. You could be an outreach person.” After a couple hours, we left Congress Park in her van to visit an abandoned encampment, a home for the homeless. She surprised us when she pulled to the side of a road in a well-known section of the city, and took us to a hidden path through the woods we would never have seen without someone showing it to us. We climbed over a fallen tree; slipped a little down a hill; crunched through dead leaves, mud and underbrush; and found ourselves in a small clearing. The trees muffled the sounds from the road, and the beauty of healthy green plants and trees seemed incongruous next to the broken bottles of vodka and overturned shopping carts. As I stood there surveying the empty food wrappers, a torn tarp, tufts of grass peeping up around shards of glass and a moldy pillow, I imagined people sleeping here. It was peaceful, a hiding place from everything about the world that could scare you, a place where you could hide even from yourself. Someone like me, educated and with years of work experience, or even someone like Tonko, who has dedicated his career to public service, could one day find ourselves in a hidden home like this. One mistake, one economic downturn, one house fire, one illness – and everything I – or Tonko – or Hensley – or anyone – had built could disappear. That could be me, numbed to sleep by alcohol and rustling leaves, on that pillow, grass, and glass. In that quiet place, Hensley asked us what it would be like to have to live with nothing but our own thoughts, regrets, frightening memories. What it would be like to have to choose to live, not just day by day, but hour by hour. “Some people say they should just get up and get a job,” said Hensley. “They say it as if a homeless person just decided one day they’d be more comfortable sleeping and drinking on the ground, that it would be more comfortable than having a home or a job. It’s sad to see that stigma. People only see the aggression, but not what’s behind the aggression. They [the homeless] are not the bad guys. These are mothers, fathers, brothers, daughters.” Bottom line, human resiliency depends on a support system, meaning people who care, who have giant hearts like Hensley. If such a person, friend, relative, neighbor doesn’t exist in your life, it’s that much harder to get up from a fall, especially a tragic fall. There but for the grace of God and the caring people in my life, go I. Hensley said the one thing she wishes everyone would take to heart is, “Just because someone is unshowered and sitting against a tree with a backpack doesn’t mean they should be judged; it doesn’t mean they don’t deserve your kindness. Be kind to everyone, because, as the saying goes, you don’t know what battle they are fighting.” And no one could be kinder than Deanna Hensley. To support her work and the countless other volunteers and professionals working with the homeless in Saratoga, a series of colorfully-painted drop boxes have been placed along Broadway to accept check and cash donations. [See our story “New Donation Boxes Hit the Streets of Saratoga Springs” by Allison Capasso in Saratoga TODAY’s August 19 edition.] For more information about Shelters of Saratoga or how you can help, visit sheltersofsaratoga.org or call 518-581-1097.
SARATOGA SPRINGS — Representatives from The New York Racing Association, Inc. (NYRA) will accompany a time capsule on various stops throughout the Capital Region as it makes its way to its final destination, Saratoga Race Course, in celebration of the 150th anniversary of thoroughbred racing at the Spa.