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No Shelter Here

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No Shelter Here

Photo by Leif Zurmuhlen 

On a below-freezing night in Dec. 2013, Nancy Pitts, a 54-year-old homeless resident of Saratoga Springs, died of exposure on a loading dock behind a downtown senior center. Four-term county supervisor Joanne Yepsen had just been elected mayor. “It was just shocking to me,” she recently told The Alt, before adding, “I think sometimes it takes a tragedy, like a death, to really bring home some of the needs—and that’s unfortunate.”

A day after the tragedy, Yepsen attended a breakfast hosted by U.S. Representative Paul Tonko for the mayors in his district. The mayor-elect and her new peers—from Albany, Troy, Amsterdam, and Schenectady—brainstormed problems they could address at a regional scale. “We all decided housing was our number one issue, for different reasons,” said Yepsen. “Affordable housing, in particular, for me.”

The other mayors, having seen reports on Pitts’ death, offered condolences. Yepsen also had seen reports—including a television interview with Liz Hitt, the executive director of the Homeless and Travelers Aid Society in Albany, who spoke of the capital’s Code Blue program. Then in its fourth winter, Albany Code Blue afforded emergency shelter to anyone, when temperatures dropped below a certain level. Saratoga Springs, of course, had no such program. Yepsen asked the other mayors, “Does everybody here have a Code Blue?”

All said yes. “Nobody was blinking an eye—as if they’d been operating for a long time,” Yepsen recalled.

The mayor-elect took action. She invited Liz Hitt, who lives in nearby Ballston Spa, to an impromptu meeting with a “little core group of nonprofits” at her church. Forty-four people showed up, according to Yepsen. Hitt dispensed particulars and offered further assistance starting the program, as did many others. The Red Cross offered blankets and cots. The pastor of the Church of St. Peter offered his rectory as a site. “We all went, ‘Bless you, bless you,’” said Yepsen, still awed by how it came together.

A marketing challenge remained. “Our biggest concern was, ‘How are we gonna get people in the door? How are they gonna know we’re open?’” Yepsen recalled. “I mean, it’s not like they’re watching Time Warner Cable necessarily in the tents in the woods.”

The solution, oddly enough, relied on the constituents the city had failed. “The homeless know where the homeless are,” Yepsen explained. Code Blue volunteers recruited four residents of Shelters of Saratoga (SOS)—a 35-bed shelter for homeless individuals downtown, the only shelter of its type in Saratoga, Warren, and Washington counties—and drove them around the city, visiting parks and encampments in the woods to spread the word.

Saratoga Code Blue opened on Christmas Eve. “When I got there at midnight, there were 12 people sleeping soundly on cots,” Yepsen said, visibly moved by the recollection. “I felt very grateful to all the people that helped me do this within a two-week period of time…It was a cold Christmas Eve, they were inside sleeping, they had a warm meal and a cup of coffee, and I thought, ‘This is good. This is all the way it’s supposed to be.’”

***

Liz Hitt is “very familiar with how Saratoga Springs feels about its homeless,” she told The Alt over the phone. “The perception, I think, historically has been duck and cover,” Hitt said. “Avoid at all costs making it seem as if poor people live in Saratoga Springs.”

This past June, the Saratoga Springs city council banned sitting or lying on all sidewalks. Throughout the evening’s contentious proceedings, the bill’s lead proponent, public safety commissioner Chris Mathiesen, a Democrat, maintained that it did not target any particular group. “It’s so important to understand that this is simply dealing with obstructions on sidewalks,” he said before the vote. “We need to remember that there are liabilities [for the city if] people are tripping over a person.” Other council members, along with some constituents, agreed. “This is clearly a public safety issue,” said finance commissioner Michele Madigan, also a Democrat, who blamed “the media” for making “it look as though…the city council were targeting the homeless, for some reason.” Saratoga Springs has “plenty of benches,” the commissioner added, “and anyone can sit on those benches. I can sit on that bench, you can sit on that bench, the homeless can sit on the bench, the vagrants can sit on the bench, panhandlers can sit on the bench, [and] buskers can sit on the bench.”

The ordinance “gave police officers a tool to move people along; to not sit/lie on the sidewalk and panhandle,” Todd Garofano, president of the Saratoga Convention and Tourism Bureau, who spoke in favor of the law that evening, told The Alt in an email.

A number of residents, unmoved by their elected officials’ full-throated defense of the law, decried it as an attack on the city’s homeless population. “Part of the issue is that the obstructions are humans,” one woman said. “Many towns are doing this kind of thing. We need to decide what kind of town we want to be.” (According to a recent report from the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, 53% of American cities have enacted similar “sit-lie” laws—a 43% increase since 2011.) Mayor Yepsen—who, owing to the city’s commission form of government, is a member of the five-person council—called the law a “good intended ordinance,” but found its penalties too “harsh.” She cast the lone dissenting vote.

At the same meeting, in a seemingly unrelated dispatch, the chairperson of Mayor Yepsen’s housing task force, Cheryl Hage-Perez, presented an update on the committee’s mandate to increase the number of affordable units in the city. Such housing is generally restricted to individuals or families earning less—to differing extents, depending on the facility—than the area median income, and is subsidized with federal, state, or local monies.

The task force, which consists primarily of directors of housing-related nonprofits, first met in 2015 after Mayor Yepsen signed a White House-led pledge to end veterans’ homelessness. Within months, the group permanently housed eighteen veterans. “However,” Hage-Perez told the crowd, “none were able to be housed in the city of Saratoga [Springs], due to lack of affordable housing.” (“That speaks volumes, doesn’t it?” Mayor Yepsen told The Alt.) In a city of about 27,000 residents, there are approximately 425 non-senior-restricted affordable units.

“We know that’s not enough,” said Hage-Perez, who is also executive director of the Saratoga County Rural Preservation Company, a nonprofit that provides housing and other services to veterans. “My agency…work[s] closely with the city public housing authority on Section 8 housing,” a federal and state voucher program that subsidizes private rentals for low-income tenants. “Both of us have closed waiting lists with hundreds of people on them, waiting for five years for housing. In the meantime, there’s two families sharing a three-bedroom apartment. It’s not ideal conditions—especially for the children.”

***

After one year at the Church of St. Peter, SOS and volunteers ran the Code Blue program for two seasons in the local Salvation Army building. But this year, the Salvation Army chapter announced it would no longer host the program, citing a need to focus on core programming. For months, SOS searched for a replacement; in late September (“the 11th hour,” the Code Blue director later said), it announced it had found one—Soul Saving Station, a small church in the heart of downtown.

Within days, a purported “coalition” of two dozen business owners, nonprofit leaders, and property owners sent a letter to Mayor Yepsen protesting the arrangement. The group’s claimed misgivings were threefold—a “lack of transparency” regarding site selection, “major safety concerns,” and “what seem to be Band-Aid measures for a problem that is only going to increase over the years”—but one point seemed paramount.

“It is known that some of the homeless population are also known sex offenders,” the letter stated, “which poses a risk to the vulnerable populations that attend nearby schools, the Children’s Museum and Public Library.” The petition further questioned the proximity of the proposed shelter to a number of health centers, including a gym (“mostly women clients”).

The Saratogian published a story based on the letter. Its central premise—that homeless people are dangerous—went unchallenged by the paper. Debate ensued—in public, private, and on Facebook, where, at least in comments on the Saratogian article, support for the shelter’s new location was, perhaps surprisingly, overwhelming.

“You know you live in evil times when people are upset about doing what is right for humanity,” one man wrote in the most-liked comment. “But that’s typical Saratoga for ya.”

***

One morning in mid-October, the mayor’s housing task force met at city hall, its first meeting since July. (The Alt was the only attendee.) Immediately after discussing the importance of countering the NIMBY—Not In My Backyard, a term for neighborhood resistance—sentiment that has killed past affordable housing proposals in the city (“It’s how you present it, when you present it, what the message is,” Yepsen advised), Cheryl Hage-Perez asked Cheryl Murphy-Parant, who works for SOS as the director of Code Blue, about the state of the program, post-kerfuffle.

“Can you possibly, Cheryl, give us on update [on] Code Blue?” the chairperson asked, eliciting sighs and groans.

Richard Higgins, president of Norstar Development USA, chuckled: “There’s an example of maybe—” He broke into laughter, along with other committee members.

“NIMBY?” someone said, completing Higgins’ sentence with feigned incredulity. “You think?”

No one mentioned the opportunity this flare-up afforded the task force members—who, moments earlier, Yepsen lauded as her community “liaisons”—to introduce the public to a vulnerable population, many of whom already live in Saratoga Springs. (There are “about 51” living in encampments throughout the city, according to Deanna Hensley, who as SOS’s outreach coordinator regularly interacts with this contingent.)

When SOS met with Soul Saving Station, Murphy-Parant told the task force, “we mentioned the possible NIMBY problem, and the church officials…didn’t feel that there would be a problem,” due in part to the fact that there is already a shelter for women and children on the same parcel of land. Though the officials were wrong about their neighbors—or a certain, vocal sect—a post-petition meeting among concerned parties at least opened a dialogue. Murphy-Parant credited the mayor for asserting at this meeting that the Code Blue program needed to be hosted somewhere—and that it would remain at Soul Saving Station absent a viable alternative.

The space at Soul Saving Station, Murphy-Parant continued, is too small. “It is gonna be a real, real, real challenge, but we’ll do it,” she said. The main room fits 22 beds, and two auxiliary rooms allow for an additional 28. She stressed—as did the petitioners—the need to find a large, permanent Code Blue space for future winters.

After the meeting, when asked what she thought of the letter’s portrayal of the homeless population, Murphy-Parant shook her head. “It’s way off-base. Our population…it’s like any other large group that you put together, any other group of people,” she said. “Most of our guys just wanna come in, get something to eat, and go to sleep.”

Some Code Blue beneficiaries, she added, “are working full-time but can’t afford…to live in the city, and can’t afford a vehicle to live outside the city, so they end up living in a tent during the summertime and…with us during the winter.” She spoke with pride about Saratoga Code Blue’s role as a crucial first link, for many, to social services.  

***

Homelessness, according to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, “is caused by a severe shortage of affordable housing.” Successions of public servants have acknowledged the shortage in Saratoga Springs. “[T]he current housing stock is simply not sufficient nor affordable to many within our community,” a 2003 report from a previous housing task force stated. (The report’s title? “A Call To Action.”)

In 2006, another committee—after a year of deliberations and 30 meetings—introduced an inclusionary zoning ordinance to the city council. If implemented, the law would have required all new developments of 10 or more rental units to set aside 10 to 20% of those units for people earning less than the area median income. The council never voted on it, despite a positive advisory opinion from the planning board. Sustainable Saratoga, a nonprofit Mayor Yepsen once helped to found, has estimated that, over the ensuing decade, the law would have produced “between 75 to 150 affordable units.” The advocacy group, in recent months, has resurrected the defunct proposal, making certain cosmetic changes. On Nov. 10th, after protracted deliberations, the planning board failed to issue a positive advisory opinion on the ordinance. That does not preclude the city council from adopting it, or some iteration of it, but it is far from an auspicious sign.

Mayor Yepsen supports the law. Asked if she thought the city council, this time, would enact it, she offered her belief that the current commissioners are “very sensitive to affordable housing.”

Yet this same city council effectively criminalized a symptom of the lack of affordable housing with the sidewalk ordinance in June, just days after The New York Times published a lengthy exposé on the possibly illegal national trend. Indeed, the New York Civil Liberties Union recently condemned the city’s sit-lie law, and continues to monitor it.

“How would this [law] harm the City’s reputation?” commissioner Mathiesen asked in an email, when The Alt asked if it had done just that. “How does restricting sitting and lying on the portions of the sidewalk where people are walking harm the reputation of the City?”

At a public hearing this month, Mathiesen introduced reductions in penalties—they were, he admitted, “a little over the top”—and a few minor clarifications for the law. He touted his ACLU membership card in response to an NYCLU representative’s call for the law’s full rescission. “I’m a liberal Democrat,” Mathiesen said. “The last thing in the world I would be doing would be targeting individuals of any sort.”

The language of the prohibition softened slightly—from an outright ban on sitting or lying “upon a public sidewalk,” to a ban on “[obstructing] a public walkway by sitting or lying upon…a sidewalk.” The use of the term “obstruct” seems to permit sidewalk sitting that does not block foot traffic. “This is the gentlest ordinance I’ve ever seen,” Mathiesen said, citing a provision included in the June amendment that requires warnings to be issued prior to citations.

The new changes passed on Nov. 15th, with Mayor Yepsen again in dissent. “I just don’t see a need for it as much as you do,” she told Mathiesen. The next day, incidentally, the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty launched a new, national campaign—”Housing Not Handcuffs”—aimed at precisely this type of ordinance.

In Saratoga Springs, it hasn’t yet come to handcuffs. Lt. Robert Jillson of the city’s police department told The Alt in September that he knew of no arrests pursuant to the law. In a separate interview, SOS executive director Michael Finocchi praised the city’s police chief, Greg Veitch. “He’s wonderful. He understands an individual’s civil rights,” the director said.

Finocchi told The Alt that SOS, though it has just 35 permanent beds, serves about 400 people per year—and that it is the only shelter for nearly all homeless individuals in Saratoga, Warren, and Washington counties. “Yeah, exactly,” he said, when this reporter gave him a look. “I’m spoiled—I came from Troy and Schenectady, where so many services are in place. I’ve got a blank canvas to work with up here.”

He gave an example of a recent brushstroke. After the shelter eliminated its 60-day stay limit at his behest, the percentage of SOS clients who leave the shelter with an income has increased from 42% to 74%.

“The biggest problem,” Finocchi said, with evident frustration, “is they can’t find housing.” After exhaustive searches within the city limits, clients invariably settle for a room out of town, often far from a bus line, relying on friends for rides. “You can only go to that well one too many times,” Finocchi said. “So what happens? You can’t get a ride in. You lose your job. What do you do? You’re knocking on my door again.”

***

Finocchi repeated this story, one afternoon in late October, in front of about 100 people at the Saratoga Springs Public Library. The forum, organized by SOS and journalist Arthur Gonick, offered an opportunity for residents to learn more about the Code Blue program, ask questions, and voice lingering concerns. Mayor Yepsen and commissioner Madigan attended, as did many shelter volunteers and at least one past Code Blue beneficiary. The room seemed packed with avowed supporters. In fact, only a few attendees articulated any reservations about the program, and the little acrimony that arose came not from NIMBYs but from people who were disappointed in NIMBYs—or disappointed in NIMBYs’ apparent absence. “I would like to hear from the objections,” one man declared. “That’s why we’re here, I think. Please speak up.”

One woman, who declined to be interviewed during a break, maintained that the location of the shelter, given its proximity to the Children’s Museum, was unacceptable. “I’m not talking about the 99% of the homeless population that will be fine,” she said. “I am concerned with the one percent that may not be fine, that may cause an incident.” Because she seemed the clearest opponent of the Code Blue location in attendance—though she insisted she was “wholly supportive” of SOS—one attendee publicly asked her if the meeting had allayed her fears. It had not. She became a kind of unwitting NIMBY avatar. The crowd wanted to win her over.

If there were any zealous (yet silent) NIMBYs in attendance, perhaps the surrogate best suited to nudge them toward tolerance was Robin Dalton, a mother of four small children who lives down the road from Soul Saving Station. When she first heard about the new Code Blue location, Dalton told the crowd, she worried about the influx of people. Her home’s proximity to the bars on Caroline Street was already a constant worry; she called the cops on drunk people all the time. “[W]hen you think about anything that’s gonna come into the neighborhood [and] affect that balance that’s so delicate, you’re concerned,” she admitted.

But after speaking with Finocchi and city officials, Dalton said, and learning more about the program, “all of my concerns were answered. It’s turned into this, like, wonderful, positive experience.” In particular, she did not worry about her children’s safety. “As this has evolved, I actually think the one percent or whatever the percentage is that you’re talking about—that’s everywhere,” she said, directly addressing the woman with concerns about the Children’s Museum. “It’s not just a contingency plan for this, we need a contingency plan for life. So this is not any more dangerous than anything else is, when you’re walking around your neighborhood. There’s always gonna be a danger. I really actually see this as a great opportunity for my kids to start understanding that people don’t have all the same things that they have.”

She entreated all parties to stay open to dialogue—the kind of openness that allowed her to ask questions without feeling like a NIMBY—and further maintained that “the bulk” of her neighbors were not the virulent NIMBYs others believed them to be. “There might have been one or two in the bunch,” she allowed, “and that ruined it for the rest of the group.”

In the days after the meeting, The Alt attempted to contact the two dozen people whose names appeared on the petition. (The inclusion of three names—among them, risibly, Michael Finnochi—prompted an immediate correction and apology.) One business owner characterized the letter as an “outline,” a catch-all of neighborhood concerns rather than a unified statement. Another told The Alt that he had been read “much” of the letter over the phone, assented to his name’s inclusion, and did not attend any ensuing meetings or follow the story very closely. (“I put my head back in the sand where it is most comfortable,” he said in an email.) Yet another said that she did not sign or agree to be named in anything; she merely attended a meeting where business owners shared information and concerns. It seemed the coalition was not as strident, outspoken, allied, or perhaps even as concerned as the letter indicated.

“I can’t tell you how many people whose name appears on that quote-unquote petition who have called, emailed, or stopped in here to say, ‘I never agreed to that,’” Mayor Yepsen told The Alt. “I do not consider it an official petition.”

Dr. Selma Nemer of One Roof, a holistic health center on the same block as Soul Saving Station, organized the coalition. Reached by phone at her office, one day after the library meeting, which she did not attend (“I’m a psychologist and I’m in sessions all day”), she first asked for The Alt’s word that we would not misrepresent her position. A broadcast journalist, she claimed, had “cut and spliced and made soundbites of what I said and took it out of context and I’ve been getting hate mail for three weeks in a row.”

Nemer repeatedly declined to detail the letter’s genesis. “I’d rather talk about what’s going on now,” she said, emphasizing the positive conversations that emerged from the skirmish. And anyway, she asserted, the petition was meant for the mayor’s eyes only.

“It keeps being called a temporary shelter,” she said. “We all unanimously, absolutely agree, yes, there has to be a Code Blue shelter and there have to be homeless shelters. Everybody in this whole area wants to help,” she claimed. “What we want is a permanent location [for Code Blue] with a community dialogue about that.” Read in the most charitable light, the September petition can be understood as an expression of surprise about the shelter’s sudden arrival; confusion about its operating hours and policies; and unfamiliarity with the homeless population’s proclivities.

“[W]e just don’t have a lot of instances where an individual who is homeless or is staying at Code Blue becomes involved with being an offender with an innocent third party,” Saratoga Springs police chief Greg Veitch told the public at the library meeting. “That typically is not our experience with our homeless population.” Veitch further advised that, according to crime statistics, “the vast majority” of assaults in the city occur in private homes during domestic disputes and on Caroline Street—the site of a number of bars, a few blocks from Soul Saving Station—on Friday and Saturday nights. “There’s no getting around the statistics that that is where most of our violent crime happens,” he said.

On Nov. 6th, the first night of Saratoga Code Blue this season, The Alt visited Soul Saving Station. Outside, as well as within, the scene was subdued. Over a dozen beneficiaries, including at least one man who claimed to know Nancy Pitts, enjoyed a hot meal before retiring to thin cots and pulling hats over their eyes. One man, who spoke with The Alt for nearly an hour, exhorting us to watch a number of his favorite movies about journalism, expressed satisfaction with the food and lodgings. Sporting a half-zip sweater, he looked like any other resident of Saratoga Springs. Asked why he came to Code Blue, he rephlied, “It’s not that far to fall.”

Volunteers were equally amiable. Why was any of this controversial?

“I cannot think of a place in Saratoga Springs [where] there won’t be a group that doesn’t want [Code Blue] there,” police chief Greg Veitch told the crowd at the library, to laughter. “It’s not that they’re mean people or bad people or they hate homeless people. It’s just, I think…there’s a perception among this population that may not entirely be accurate.”

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