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Displaying items by tag: homeless shelter

SARATOGA SPRINGS - A decision has been made in the lawsuit against the City of Saratoga Springs which seeks to block a permanent Code Blue shelter from being built on the property of Shelters of Saratoga, Inc. at 14 Walworth St., according to S.O.S.

In an order dated Sept. 17, a Saratoga County Supreme Court judge has vacated and nullified all City approvals granted to SOS in response to a lawsuit filed by surrounding neighbors. The order vacates and nullifies the determinations by The City of Saratoga Springs Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) and Planning Board in 2017 and 2018 which would have allowed the shelter to be built.

Shelters of Saratoga, or S.O.S., oversees the Code Blue program, and 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.

In early 2017, local business owner Ed Mitzen, and his wife Lisa, stepped forward to announce they will pay for the costs of a new, permanent Code Blue homeless shelter to be built on the current Shelters of Saratoga property on Walworth Street.

The 2017 and 2018 approvals from the ZBA and Planning Board were challenged based upon the opposition to the City’s administrative determination that the proposed Code Blue shelter met the definition of a “neighborhood rooming house” as set forth in the Saratoga Springs City Zoning Code. Following the administrative decision, the ZBA voted in favor of the interpretation that the proposed shelter was zoning compliant. The decision revoking the most recent approvals resulted from the combination of two lawsuits filed by the neighbors in 2018 which is in addition to a 2017 lawsuit neighbors filed following the ZBA dismissal of their case as untimely.

Code Blue, a program of SOS, is a restriction-free winter shelter that operates from November until April when the temperature drops below 32 degrees or more than 12 inches of snow is predicted. The temporary shelter was located at Soul Saving Station Church on Henry Street in Saratoga Springs for the winter of 2017-2018. During the 2017-18 winter season, Code Blue provided meals, clothing and support to 144 people. An average of 53 people used the shelter for 162 evenings and 44 daytime openings. Forty-five individuals transitioned into treatment, reconnected with family, entered another program, or found permanent housing.

The Franklin Street residents opposed to the shelter being developed on Walworth Street, released a statement through their spokesperson subsequent to the ruling by Judge Robert Chauvin. The statement reads: "Given the order and judgment of the court that the proposed Walworth Street shelter expansion was not an appropriate use of zoning, it is our hope that the Shelters of Saratoga, the City, the neighbors, the County, and involved parties can work together to carefully address homelessness and Code Blue services in our community. Alternate sites have been offered and should be considered as part of a meaningful, long-term solution."

“Our plans to shelter people for the upcoming winter season are well underway thanks to the commitment of Soul Saving Station Church and Presbyterian New England Congregational Church as temporary locations for Code Blue.” said Marcy Dreimiller, SOS board president, in a statement. “We are disappointed in the decision and will now need to evaluate what options exist for a permanent, long term solution for the Code Blue program.”

Published in News

SARATOGA SPRINGS - City Republican mayoral candidate Mark Baker  released a statement Monday in advance of tonight’s Zoning Board of Appeals meeting (7 p.m. at City Hall) where a discussion will be held regarding the proposed 61-bed homeless shelter on the city's west side.  

In the statement, Baker says the current proposal “is not sufficient” in serving the homeless, and that “it does not adequately respect our neighborhoods and current residents,” suggesting that a city shelter may bring in more people in need from outside the community. 

“As a community we have a moral obligation and responsibility to show compassion and to be responsive to those already in our city who are in need and homeless,” says Baker, adding the shelter “may in fact create an even greater need, by attracting additional folks in need to the community versus Saratoga Springs embracing those who are in the city already needing a helping hand.”

While no alternative plan is offered, Baker says, “I am personally committed to finding a solution to this issue.”

Current Democrat Saratoga Springs Mayor Joanne Yepsen, who is not running for re-election, issued a response to Baker’s statements late Monday, which read, in part: “Mr. Baker's accusation that the Mayor's office, along with the many volunteers who have helped and donated to Code Blue since I have taken office, have somehow contributed to the homeless problem is misinformed, uncompassionate, and just plain mean spirited.” 

Baker's statement, in its entirety, immediately follows. Yepsen's statement, in its entirety, follows below. 

Candidate Mark Baker:

“I trust and expect the Saratoga Springs Zoning Broad will be realistic and objective when they evaluate the merits and challenges of approving a "Code Blue" facility in the heart of one of Saratoga Springs’ historic and most densely populated residential areas.

“As a community we have a moral obligation and responsibility to show compassion and to be responsive to those already in our city who are in need and homeless, especially children.  I am personally committed to finding a solution to this issue that is sensitive to those in need but is also responsible to our neighborhoods, schools and residents.

“The first step in finding a resolution and mutually acceptable solution is for city leaders, particularly the mayor, to listen and gather public input and guidance.

“The current proposal before the Zoning Board is not sufficient in how it will serve the homeless and it does not adequately respect our neighborhoods and current residents. A better solution needs to be investigated.

“It may, in fact, create an even greater need, by attracting additional folks in need to the community versus Saratoga Springs embracing those who are in the city already needing a helping hand.

“The past approach to these pressing questions and lack of public input, planning and thoughtfulness from the mayor’s office has led to real community problems of vagrancy, aggressive panhandling and encouraging the presence of homeless individuals downtown. In a tourist destination city, with a vibrant downtown residential community, these are problems for tourism, downtown business and public safety management of our community.

“The goal is to be responsive and compassionate to those who are homeless. The solution needs to be respectful and realistic. The current Zoning Board proposal is not the ‘best practice’ approach to addressing the question of how to help people to find shelter.”

Mayor Joanne Yepsen:

"Immediately after Nancy Pitts died on the winter streets of Saratoga Springs in December 2013 and before I was even sworn in as Mayor, I established Code Blue Saratoga with the help of many non-profits in our City stating, never would we allow anyone to die on the streets of Saratoga Springs due to exposure, under my administration.  Since then, we have ended Veterans Homelessness with permanent housing and we are offering emergency shelter under the Code Blue Program.  95 % of Code Blue Saratoga guests are Saratogians.  They are homeless, and in our community already and many are just temporarily down on their luck and need a helping hand.  Not only does Code Blue save lives, but the guests are also receiving much needed support and services that they might not get otherwise.  In fact, the Code Blue program is so successful that over 1/3 of all guests over the past few years have "graduated" and no longer need the emergency shelter.

“Since taking office, the Mayor's office has collaborated with the Chamber of Commerce, Shelters of Saratoga, neighborhoods, non-profits, places of worship, attended community meetings, and hosted countless meetings in my office with all who wanted to meet, discuss options, and help contribute to the solution. We even started a Code Blue Steering Committee made up of the community to work with me and Shelters throughout the program's existence. Wellspring, Giving Circle, Captain, Community Healthcare, Catholic Charities, EOC are all on board and have been involved since the beginning.  This is a community collaboration.

“Since that snowy Christmas Eve in 2013 when we first opened our doors, a volunteer program organically developed of hundreds of caring and generous individuals and now have the added generosity of Ed and Lisa Mitzen.  The leadership of Code Blue Saratoga is well-established and under the highly regarded and successful non-profit Shelters of Saratoga, which offered to oversee a solution to keep people from living off the streets, otherwise it's back on the streets for homeless.

“After much input, debate, and conversations, the question becomes very simple: "What kind of community do we want to be?"  Do we want to be the kind of City that allows our most disadvantaged people to die on the streets?  Or do we want to be the kind of City who come together, who collectively advocate and fund raise, who strategize and think through together as a community how to best approach our homeless issue both in the short term as well as the long term.

“Mr. Baker's accusation that the Mayor's office, along with the many volunteers who have helped and donated to Code Blue since I have taken office, have somehow contributed to the homeless problem is misinformed, uncompassionate, and just plain mean spirited.  Based on Mark Baker's naive position, many will guess he's never attended a Code Blue Steering Committee meeting or volunteered in the shelter, as so many Saratogians have done.  I would guess the question on many readers minds would be what has he done in the last four years to offer a solution or be a part of the conversation?  He really ought to be ashamed of himself.  I understand he is operating in campaign mode, we are trying to save lives here."

Published in News
Friday, 26 August 2016 11:34

Glass, Grass, and Pillows

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.

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