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Displaying items by tag: Shelters Of Saratoga

Wednesday, 22 December 2021 16:39

Winter Coat Drive Begins in Saratoga Springs

SARATOGA SPRINGS — Shelters of Saratoga has partnered with Fingerpaint to provide winter coats to anyone in need. The 3rd annual “Take One, Leave One” winter coat drive was created as an easy way to provide warm coats for anyone in need one. 

The coat rack is located in downtown Saratoga Springs in front of the Fingerpaint building at 395 Broadway. Community members wishing to donate are encouraged to hang gently used or new coats on the rack which will be available through the winter. 

For more information contact Shelters of Saratoga office at 518-581-1097.

Published in Neighborhood Buzz
Thursday, 09 December 2021 12:08

Does Compassion Have a Season?

It’s that time of year again when the focus shifts to the Code Blue Emergency Shelter for individuals experiencing street homelessness. Code Blue is a New York State mandate that says when the “Real Feel” temperature drops to 32 degrees, emergency, low barrier shelter for homeless individuals must be provided. In December of 2013, Nancy Pitts passed away in the freezing night which sparked a call to action to begin Code Blue operations in Saratoga Springs.

Frankly, the whole philosophy of Code Blue has often left me baffled. Why is it that we must hit a certain temperature before we take care of those who are most in need? Do we need the thermometer to tell us when we show compassion, kindness, and empathy? I have seen homeless individuals from ages 1 to well into their 80’s. I have seen veterans, persons with masters and Ph.D. degrees, daughters, sons, mothers, fathers, and even grandparents.

Maybe if we understood our homeless a bit more, that philosophy might change. Homelessness is not just a Saratoga problem; it has been an issue in our country and across the world for decades. There are many reasons why homelessness is such an issue. The contributing factors around homelessness are poverty, lack of affordable housing, addiction/substance use, and mental health challenges. In today’s society, we look at those who are suffering and instinctively assume that homelessness is of their own creation. Many people have been let down by our societal systems, and overcoming homelessness requires a support system many do not have. I can assure you that no person aspires to be homeless or at a Code Blue shelter.

Please, don’t get me wrong. I’ve been working at Shelters of Saratoga and in this wonderful community for 15 months. What I’ve seen since my arrival would make anyone proud. I’ve seen our businesses, city and county government officials want to be part of a solution. I’ve witnessed how much our community truly cares about some of today’s most controversial issues. Most notably are the dedicated staff and volunteers that give up their evenings and early mornings so that they can provide a hot meal, a warm cot, and more importantly, dignity and hope to our neighbors that have lost so much.

Last year we sheltered an average of 33 people a night at Code Blue, serving a total of 215 people for the season. Our volunteers served over 5,000 meals that were generously donated by local restaurants and community organizations. Code Blue is currently in full swing at our temporary Adelphi Street location and we are already on par to eclipse last year’s numbers.

There are multiple agencies working diligently to solve homelessness. Code Blue is a life-saving strategy, but not the answer to homelessness. We must work together on proven solutions to bring this human issue into the forefront of our minds and hearts. It’s time we discard the “thermometer philosophy” and take the next steps to expand  year-round services at the navigation center and designate a permanent location for Code Blue. With these resources we can forge better pathways out of the despair of homelessness. 

To learn more about Shelters of Saratoga’s work to end homelessness, please visit: sheltersofsaratoga.org 

Published in News

For many Saratoga County residents, turning to a trusted faith-based organization (“FBO” = church, synagogue, mosque, temple etc.) is a natural inclination when they find themselves struggling to make rent, pay for car repairs, put food on the table, or keep their lights on. After all, it is these organizations, and their parishioners who provide invaluable guidance and support during times of hardship. Unfortunately, the capacity of any one FBO to provide monetary assistance is limited, and their knowledge of applicable government funded resources may be insufficient to support long-lasting change.

A formal partnership of non-profits and faith-based organizations in Saratoga County leverages traditional modes of support by FBOs by facilitating a “crowd-sourced funding” type approach to meeting community-member’s immediate needs AND connects them with established services and financial assistance needed to reach and maintain self-sufficiency. Operating under the acronym FEASST (Family Emergency Assistance of Southern Saratoga County), the partnership was founded by CAPTAIN Community Human Services and several Clifton Park area FBOs. With the help of seed funding from our local Habitat for Humanity, the FEASST program now encompasses the northern area of Saratoga County, including the City of Saratoga Springs.


Meet Rachel: Rachel is a single mom who works at your local gas station. Her son Steve is in 3rd grade. One of Steve’s classmates contracted COVID, necessitating him to quarantine for two weeks. Rachel needed to stay home with Steven, and thus was unable to work for two whole weeks. Although Rachel typically works 40+ hours per week, she lives paycheck to paycheck. She uses about 40% of her income towards rent and is nervous about missing her next payment. Rachel reached out to her church seeking advice and help with making rent.

What used to happen? Rachel’s church would provide her as much financial assistance as they could, though not quite enough to fully cover her lapse in rent. Spiritual support and group prayer for an improved situation would be facilitated, as well as some “light-touch” budgeting guidance.

Why FEASST is a great solution:  Rachel’s church connects her with CAPTAIN CHS. CAPTAIN CHS screens Rachel and realizes she only needs a short term solution to make this month’s rent. CAPTAIN CHS then reaches out to the local FBOs and nonprofits seeking $400 to cover ½ of her rent. Two churches give $100 each and one agency gives $200. Rachel’s church provides her with integral spiritual and community support during this difficult time. Alone, Rachel’s church would have struggled to meet her needs, but FEASST solves the problem!

Meet Mike: Mike is the bartender at your favorite restaurant. Sadly, he lost his job due to the COVID pandemic. Mike had $3,000 saved in his “rainy day” fund. Mike’s back at work but his income, which is predominantly from tips, is down over 50%. Even with supplemental unemployment and his stimulus check, his rainy day fund is nearly depleted and he is concerned about making rent. Mike reached out to his synagogue seeking advice and help with making rent.

What used to happen? Mike’s synagogue would provide him as much financial assistance as they could, though not quite enough to fully cover his gap in rent. Spiritual support and group prayer for an improved situation would be facilitated, as well as some “light-touch” budgeting guidance.

Why FEASST is a great solution:Mike’s synagogue connects him with CAPTAIN CHS. CAPTAIN CHS screens Mike and realizes that due to COVID there is government funding available to help him. Problem solved!

FEASST is a proactive housing solution that is executed by discovering the root cause of the issue and providing a collaborative holistic approach that provides a long term solution. If this type of strategy resonates with you, please consider making a donation to your local Habitat for Humanity at glensfallshabitat.org or CAPTAIN CHS at captaincares.org.

Published in News
Thursday, 07 January 2021 15:35

Overcoming Homelessness in Saratoga: There is Hope

Can you imagine rebuilding your life from the bottom, with no job, money in your pocket, secure place to live or support system? Digging out of that hole can be seemingly impossible. Add on health complications, staying sober, few affordable housing options, and a pandemic. For David “Dewey” and Nancy, not only was it possible but self-determination got them where they are today – thriving and giving back to the community that helped support them.

When you first meet Dewey and Nancy, it’s apparent how special they are and if you’re invited to their home you’ll quickly see how grateful they are to be living in one again. Not only did they find housing in Saratoga but they also found support and love. Their lives went down similar paths for years without ever knowing one another, then in May their lives converged. 

His birthname is David but it never suited him. From an early age David earned the nickname “Dewey” because he always had to be doing something. Today he’s often found helping a friend, fixing a foundation, or raking the yard – no job is too big or small. His motivation to stay busy is one of the reasons he was able to quickly overcome homelessness in Saratoga. Just last winter Dewey found himself on the doorstep of Shelters of Saratoga’s Code Blue emergency winter shelter. With five years of sobriety under his belt, Dewey realized the shelter wasn’t the ideal environment for him to stay in. In February, a bed at the year-round shelter opened and Dewey moved in. He considered returning to the construction career he held for nearly four decades but feared it would compromise his sobriety. He began working on a housing plan with the staff at SOS and looking for jobs. Dewey worked hard to maintain his sobriety and when recovery resources all but ceased, he became a valuable resource to others at the shelter also trying to maintain their sobriety. He was a great friend and support system for people when regular support groups were scarce. That’s how Dewey and Nancy met.

When Nancy reflects back on her adult years, she beams with pride. She raised three children and ran a candy business for 17 years. Amidst these accomplishments she was struggling with addiction to alcohol a problem that escalated quickly. By her mid-30’s “the bottle took a firm grip on me,” Nancy recently reflected. Her relationship with her children was at stake if she didn’t get sober. It’s been six years since Nancy took her last drink and rebuilding her life has been challenging. She lives on a limited income due to a disability. She spent a few years with a roommate, then living with family but those living situations compromised her sobriety. When she came to SOS in May 2020, she knew she would only get out of the program what she was willing to put in. She immediately began volunteering to cook meals for the street outreach team and continued working on her sobriety alongside Dewey and others at the shelter. She was patient and trusted that if she kept moving forward her situation would improve. 

Today, Nancy and Dewey live in a house owned by Shelters of Saratoga. The house is adjacent to nine motel units in the city which will undergo renovations later this year. When renovations are complete the units will become permanent supportive housing for chronically homeless individuals. Dewey is now employed by SOS as caretaker of the property and Nancy volunteers her time washing blankets for the Code Blue shelter. “Being able to give back has helped me maintain my sobriety. I have a sense of purpose and I’m so grateful to be able to help others in my situation,” Nancy said. 

Nancy and Dewey are two of many who with self-determination and the support of caring providers have overcome homelessness in our community. 

To learn more about Shelters of Saratoga work please visit www.sheltersofsaratoga.org

Published in News
Thursday, 16 April 2020 12:16

Shelters of Saratoga Responds to COVID-19

SARATOGA SPRINGS — In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Shelters of Saratoga (SOS) Executive Director Karen Gregory announced Sunday that The Holiday Inn, located in downtown Saratoga Springs, will serve as a temporary location for the city’s homeless. 

Isolating people experiencing homelessness in individual hotel rooms with access to private bathrooms is the best possible solution to facilitate safe distancing and the ability to practice good hygiene thus preventing a community-wide spread of COVID-19. Food service, basic necessities and case management is being provided to those staying in the hotel. The shelters on Walworth Street remain open and SOS is serving over 100 people through the outreach program, which provides people with food and hygiene products. 

“Our number one priority is the health and safety of people we are helping each day. Social distancing and hygiene is the only way to slow the spread of COVID-19. Unfortunately, people experiencing homelessness don’t have the ability to stay home.” Gregory said. “People experiencing homelessness don’t have regular access to sinks where they can wash their hands and those staying at homeless shelters can’t always remain six feet from another person. There are simply too many people and not enough space.” Quarantine for a sick or exposed individual would not be possible in these settings.

In addition, homeless individuals face a variety of issues when it comes to COVID-19. Age, poor health, disability, and living conditions make them highly vulnerable to illness. Once the virus is introduced to this high-risk population, further transmission will be very difficult to contain. As such, Shelters of Saratoga initiated this proactive, rapid response plan for this crisis.

Gregory stated “I made several requests to Saratoga County to move our shelters into a local hotel before someone was symptomatic or tested positive for COVID-19. I was told over and over again that would not be possible until somebody tested positive, although I explained at that point it would be too late and I was afraid we would have a shelter full of very sick people including my staff. Ultimately, I did not want anyone to die.”

When Gregory voiced her concerns and ideas to Saratoga Springs Mayor Meg Kelly, the Mayor was immediately aligned with her worries. They met the next morning and started going door to door to find a hotel. Kevin Tuohy, General Manager of the Holiday Inn in Saratoga, offered his support immediately and without hesitation. 

While the guests will be staying at the hotel, Gregory has opted to move in as well to keep operations running smoothly. “Although, I miss my family tremendously, it is critically important to me, to keep both my family safe as well as the people SOS is serving.”

Kelly shared this, "As Mayor, it's my job to protect all of my citizens, including and especially those most vulnerable. Current federal and state guidelines for COVID-19 and homeless individuals set a reactive threshold - quarantine only after an individual presents with symptoms. For our city, this was not a high enough standard. I'm proud that Saratoga Springs is joining a short, but growing list of communities across the country prepared to prevent infection and spread among our homeless population by using hotels to practice social distancing and enable access to adequate hygiene, hand washing, and quarantine. This will save lives. And I'm grateful to Shelters of Saratoga’s Executive Director, Karen Gregory for her agility in the face of this crisis and to Kevin Tuohy, General Manager of the Holiday Inn here in Saratoga for stepping forward." 

Published in Business
Friday, 07 June 2019 13:50

Code Blue Eyes New Location

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. 

Published in News

SARATOGA SPRINGS – Two weeks into the winter season coupled with predictions that forecast freezing temperatures for most every day this month are pushing the status of the city based homeless shelter from emergency status into a near 24/7 operation.   

Code Blue Saratoga, a program of Shelters of Saratoga, provides temporary unrestricted shelter during periods of hazardous winter weather - defined as 12 inches or more of snow and/or a temperature of 32 degrees or less, to include wind chill factor. Last year, the shelter was opened 28 times during the daytime hours over the course of the entire season. That number will already be eclipsed this weekend.

“The daytime temperatures are a lot lower this year,” says Code Blue Director Cheryl Ann Murphy-Parant. 

Code Blue was started in December 2013 as a collaborative effort between the City of Saratoga Springs, faith-based groups, individuals and non-profit partners committed to assisting individuals who are homeless. The shelter is temporarily housed at the Soul Saving Station Church, on Henry Street.

Parant said current needs at the shelter include: milk, juices and ice tea mix; butter, sugar and coffee – regular and decaffeinated. Donated items may be dropped off at the shelter at any time.  Additionally, a volunteer sign-up is listed on the organization’s website –https://www.codebluesaratoga.org/wordpress/   - where volunteers may sign up for a variety of duties.

The walk-in, emergency homeless shelter offers a hot meal, a warm and safe place to sleep and essential supplies. During the 2016-17 winter season, Code Blue housed more than 5,800 overnight stays and served 6,700 meals.

Shelters of Saratoga, which oversees Code Blue, had hoped to be operating a permanent shelter adjacent to its S.O.S. properties on Walworth Street this year after local business owner Ed Mitzen announced he would fund the costs to build the shelter and local firms Bonacio Construction and the LA Group agreed to forego any profits to keep the building development costs as low as possible.

Shortly after that announcement, however, a group of 22 residents filed a legal challenge claiming the proposed two-story building which would house about 50 beds didn’t fit into their west side neighborhood and that its development is not a permitted use within the Urban Residential Zoning District. Monday night at City Hall, the Zoning Board of Appeals is expected to discuss the matter. 

Published in News
Thursday, 26 October 2017 12:46

Sustainable Saratoga Recycling Day

[Photos by Camera Famosa Photography.]

On Saturday, Oct. 21, retired teachers Art and Julie Holmberg, with a committee of 6-8 people and the help of the environmental class at Saratoga High School taught by Jody Visconti, and the Honor Society, among many others, came together to create Saratoga Recycles Day.

From 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., roughly 500 cars came through and donated everything from electronics, metals, bicycles, small appliances, and textiles such as hats, towels, clothes, and rags, in any condition. Some textiles were recycled and some were redistributed. They shared the proceeds with the Saratoga High School clubs.

Mayor Joanne Yepsen proclaimed it Recycling Day.

Upstitch, a company in Albany, collected crochet needles, yarn, fabrics, sewing notions and sewing baskets to help educate people in impoverished areas and help them learn those skills.

Starting late last winter, the committee began to volunteer their time and organize the event, which included the vendors JGL Recycling in Colonie, American Clothing Company in Glens Falls, Bike Toga in Saratoga and Upstitch.

“It began with reading an article about Bethlehem. Dan Rein was named recycler of the year and so I looked on the website and saw what they did and how much they gathered. We patterned this after the Bethlehem program that has been recycling and having a recycling day for the past four to five years,” Art Holmberg explained.

“This was a very cooperative effort with Saratoga Springs Central School District. It started off with just environmental classes lending a hand and turned into the Honor Society helping. The students primarily helped with textiles and unloading cars,” Holmberg said.

Skidmore College students developed a pamphlet that talked about all of the places you can bring your recycling products in the local area, listing what they accept, addresses, etc.

“In general I go to Weibel Avenue transfer station and see what people throw down into the landfill and I just shudder when I see what’s been thrown in there that could be recycled and reused,” Holmberg said.

“There’s so much in recycling and reusing that we need to do more of as Americans and particularly in Saratoga,” Julie Holmberg added.

One hundred backpacks were collected for Shelters of Saratoga; 11,500 pounds of clothes were collected, and 89 bicycles were collected with Levi Rogers arranging the bike station and doing some repairs on site.

Bike Toga took 25 bikes to repair and then redistribute to the people of the community at a very low cost, and seven people exchanged bikes on the spot.

The Backstretch Employee Service Team (B.E.S.T.) took 12 bikes to keep on hand for next season. They collected a great deal of textiles as well.

Statistically speaking, Americans generate about 84 pounds of clothing every year and 70 percent of that material goes into a landfill, taking years to break down.

The committee members have already planned the event for next year, to take place on Oct. 20, 2018.

“We were so encouraged by the community’s response, we were very thrilled,” Julie Holmberg said.

“Start packing things up for next year. Eventually, with enough help and support, we could do this twice a year. It was a shot in the dark, but we succeeded,” added her husband.

Published in Education
Thursday, 12 October 2017 13:14

Hockey for Shelters of Saratoga

[Graphic provided by Rosemary Riedhammer]

SARATOGA SPRINGS – On Saturday, Oct. 14 at 7:00 p.m. join Adirondack Thunder at the Glens Falls Civic Center as they play to raise funds for the Shelters of Saratoga (SOS) organization. Tickets are $15 and $5 of each ticket sold will be donated to SOS. Adirondack Thunder will be playing Brampton Beast.

“The Civic Center actually approached us with a fundraiser they’re doing to support local non-profits and we had recently done a community resource day at the Civic Center and they approached us while we were there and we thought it would be nice to get involved,” said Rosemary Riedhammer, director of development and marketing at SOS.

SOS is asking their supporters to come out and support the shelter in a different way with a broader spectrum, therefore, getting more people involved. SOS’s typical events reach a very specific group, mostly adults, and the Adirondack Thunder game is a good way to involve whole families in a community service act that they can do together.

If SOS sells 100 tickets, they will be eligible for free ads at the arena for a year. To buy tickets for the event, visit www.coolinsuringarena.com and go to the events and tickets tab, once there, use the promo code SOSTHUNDER.

“We just hope people will come out and support us. Glens Falls is just a couple exits up the Northway and we hope to see everyone there,” Riedhammer said.

Published in Sports
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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