SARATOGA SPRINGS —With a motto of Health, History and Horses, Saratoga Springs has also become known for its philanthropy and generosity. In a normal season, a single summer gala can raise hundreds of thousands of dollars, and year-round donations keep our many non-profits moving forward.
Local organizations such as Code Blue, Shelters of Saratoga and the Salvation Army are on the cutting edge when it comes to helping the less fortunate. But has all of this good come at a cost?
The Saratoga Springs homeless population has been on a steady increase for at least the past five years. During the winter of 2014-15, the ‘number of people sheltered’ at Code Blue was 82; it was 261 last winter!
How do we balance our moral obligations with our ongoing economic sustainability? What are the safety concerns associated with this? Who are the homeless?
On any given day, if you take a ride down Woodlawn Ave. (1 block off Broadway) you may see people passed-out on the sidewalk, bedding strewn all around, and groups of homeless gathered. Depending on the weather, some of those homeless may make their way to Broadway, the epicenter of the city’s economy, where they will panhandle and set up shop in front of local businesses.
But their presence is not limited to panhandling and vagrancy. Drug use and alcohol consumption accompany regular reports of public urination, defecation, and fornication, usually focused around our several parking garages and visible to the public.
THE PARKING GARAGES
As I drove down Broadway earlier this week, there was an individual passed-out on the grass in front the Stewarts Shop across from the City Center. Just a few hundred feet from that location is a multi-million dollar parking structure project, complete with a skybridge over Maple Ave. While the parking structure is a definite boon to our city, many residents share “safety concerns” once the structure is open to the public. Ryan McMahon, Executive Director of the City Center says those concerns have been taken seriously and were addressed in the design process.
“Both of the stair towers are enclosed in windows so there is visibility from outside as well as continual illumination in these, and most areas,” stated McMahon. “The structure will have a security office at the Maple Avenue entrance which will be staffed most of the time, including overnight. Within the security office there will be access to over thirty cameras that cover the inside and outside of the structure. Finally, there are ‘blue phones’ located on each level of the structure, at the stair towers, which will have a direct line to the police dispatch.”
But there is a big difference between securing a single parking structure and an entire downtown.
Saratoga Springs has been referred to as a ‘jewel nestled in the foothills of the Adirondacks.’ We are the perfect blend of arts, entertainment, shopping, and dining. Sadly, the vibrancy of our downtown could be in jeopardy. Store owners have serious concerns with the ongoing vagrancy issue. Their entire livelihoods are tied into their sales. And their sales pay the salaries of thousands of local employees. Aggressive panhandlers and public urination in front of stores is not good for business.
I reached out to Chamber of Commerce President Todd Shimkus and he was well aware of this problem. “No doubt that the homeless situation downtown is one of the top challenges mentioned to me by business owners, their employees and their customers. It has been for a number of years,” said Shimkus. “I know Shelters of Saratoga has a new executive director now. I think we’ll need him and the City to find a way to do even more to collaborate and to provide more consistent outreach to help those on the streets get the services they need.”
Who are our homeless? According to the new Executive Director of Shelters of Saratoga (SOS), Duane Vaughn, this issue isn’t specific to our community. “The issue is a national issue and there are many contributors such as mental illness, loss of job or housing, addiction, family conflict or domestic violence. The list can be long and it can be a combination of some or all these factors.”
He added that Shelters is currently working on policy and procedure to refine what they should do, and what they currently do well. “Our goal is the health and safety for the people we serve, our community and our staff. My
plan is to open broader communication with our complete community which includes other non-profits, City and County Governments and of course, our Saratoga Springs neighbors.”
Not one to back down from a challenge, Vaughn feels this is a doable task and one he is ready to tackle. “I have had conversations with City and County government, and all are passionate about helping our most vulnerable populations. We will revamp how Code Blue is operated and if all goes as planned, open a day drop-in center where we can bring various government and non-government services to our most needy community members instead of having them seek out and navigate service provision.”
Call it serendipity or just good timing, but since I began writing this piece earlier in the week some significant decisions have taken place. At Tuesday night’s City Council meeting it was announced that the Saratoga County supervisors approved a plan to let SOS use part of the county’s Woodlawn Avenue building. The building will serve as a homeless outreach center connecting individuals with social services, mental health, treatment, veterans counseling and other needed services.
Public Safety Commissioner Robin Dalton weighed-in with an optimistic outlook. “Without question, Saratoga Springs has a homeless problem that has grown significantly over the last few years and it ties up a significant amount of our time and resources, but this week marks what will hopefully be a noticeable effectiveness of our efforts; this outreach center changes the game.
“As far as public safety, our police officers are stuck in the middle. They have residents and business owners complaining to them to keep downtown safe - from the panhandling, behavior and sometimes simply the visual of being homeless - but poverty isn’t criminalized, we cannot make this group of people disappear somehow,” Dalton added.
“The professionalism of our officers really shines through in situations like this, they treat the homeless with dignity and respect and want to get them the help they need, but also completely empathize with the business owners and residents. When in doubt, always call us, we will be there to help.”
Saratoga Springs is not your average run-of-the-mill town with a stagnant economy and shuttered businesses. We are the shining city upon a hill. We set an example that others follow and continually reimagine our events and locations to maximize our appeal. But staying on top is not an easy task, and we must be humble enough to realize it could easily slip away. Prudent decisions need to be made by a cross section of all our leaders.
To quote the Peter Parker principle: With great power comes great responsibility.
We have a responsibility to ALL our citizens to do what is good, right, and just. They are the business owners and the tourists, the homeowners and the homeless. We must create sensible solutions that work for everyone while maintaining individual rights and basic human dignity.
And let’s think in terms of preventive health vs band aids. Band aids are great for covering up wounds that already exists, but our goal should be to eliminate the disease that causes these wounds. Far too often I see young homeless people walking our streets lost in life. Over the next three decades how many times will they be arrested, rushed to the emergency room, or huddled on the sidewalk shivering in the middle of winter?
In closing, I issue a challenge to SOS, City Council, the County, Code Blue, and everyone else with the expertise and power to make a difference: Initiate meaningful change that will affect generations, and create a benchmark for other cities and towns to follow. Let’s move the needle on this!