The city of Saratoga Springs is facing a dilemma when the temperature drops below freezing: Where to shelter their homeless human beings – in the city proper or bus them to parts unknown? The divide between compassion and property values in this quaint upstate city continues to be unbridgeable.
Last Friday the historic Saratoga Racetrack opened for another season of thoroughbred racing. The city of Saratoga Springs celebrates the “Sport of Kings” better than any place else in America. The stars of the show, the horses, are cared for twenty-four hours a day. Their comfort and health are of the upmost importance to the owners of the thoroughbreds. And this is as it should be. However, as these majestic animals are pampered and kept sheltered and either warm or cool depending on the weather, homeless human beings in Saratoga Springs are being told they are not welcome. There is no room at the inn when the cold sets in. It has been suggested that the homeless, who are seeking shelter from the elements in the dead of winter, should be bused out of the city. These people have even been called “toxic.”
Who are these ‘toxic’ people? According to the 2016 Capital Region Coalition to End Homelessness’ report, “The STATE of HOMELESSNESS in the Capital Region,” on January 28, 2016, 1,540 people were homeless in the Capital District. Of these 1,540 people, 357 were children (Yes, I guess, according to some people, children can be toxic) and 123 had no shelter. The numbers come from what is known as a “Point-in-Time” count. It is similar to the April 1 census count, where the information collected is supposed to be for just that one day. Essentially, it is a snapshot of the community.
In the Homelessness report, the city of Saratoga Springs is included under the combined heading: Glens Falls/Saratoga Springs/Saratoga, Washington, Warren, Hamilton Counties. The numbers for this area are: 268 total homeless, 10 percent are veterans, 28 percent families, 56 percent had a disabling condition (many in this group were victims of domestic violence), 11 percent chronic homeless, and 6 percent unsheltered (defined as sleeping in a place not suitable for human habitation).
The stories behind the numbers are as varied as the numbers themselves. Substance abuse issues, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), domestic abuse victims, children whose parents are in prison or are unable to overcome the illness of alcohol and/or drug addiction, lack of employment opportunities, etc.
The Code Blue shelter is an addition to the already existing Shelters of Saratoga facility. This seems like the best place to construct the shelter as it will be connected to an existing headquarters that offers services that are needed by many of the homeless who will be using the Code Blue facility during cold winter months.
Furthermore, in order to have the least intrusive effect on the nearby neighborhood, restrictions have been placed on the Code Blue shelter. These restrictions include: limiting the use of the shelter to only when the state-mandated Code Blue alert is in effect (when the temperatures fall to freezing or below); closing off access to Marvin Alley and staggering the release of residents so that they all don’t hit the street at the same time. (I love this phrase, “release of residents,” it equates a homeless family leaving their overnight winter shelter to an inmate getting released from jail.)
Why, then, are some city residents planning to file a lawsuit against the city’s planning board and zoning board of appeals? Plain and simple answer, Not-In-MY-Back-Yard or NIMBYism. This tactic of suing land use boards is a known way to try and keep unwanted societal-related facilities and programs out of a community. Instead of just coming out and saying what the real concern is – that we don’t want “those people” in our neighborhood, and being upfront about it, community residents use zoning, planning, and environmental concerns as excuses for blocking the siting of community shelters. I particularly feel the environmental concerns may be seen as appropriate reasons for blocking a Code Blue shelter as, according to news reports, a resident in the neighborhood referred to the homeless situation as “toxic.”
I know not all of the residents of Saratoga Springs see the homeless this way. I applaud the Shelters of Saratoga, Mayor Joanne Yespen, Sonny Bonacio, Mike Ingersoll and Ed and Lisa Mitzen for stepping up to the plate to get this much needed shelter constructed. It reminded me of a story that I recently read in Next City, entitled, “New Miami Development Takes a Holistic Approach to Solving Family Homelessness.”
What happened in Miami is the construction of a soon to be opened, community-supported, $28 million facility with the aim of bringing stability and help to homeless families trying to escape childhood abuse and domestic violence. Lotus Village, as it is called, is a public-private partnership project that will not only provide a physical shelter to homeless families, but it will offer support services that address the needs of “the most fragile among us,” according to Lotus House executive director Constance Collins. Collins, a former high-powered real estate developer and investment advisor, saw the need for providing women a safe place to live and the trauma services necessary to get them out of the vicious cycle of abuse and homelessness. The Shelters of Saratoga cite similar reasons for wanting to place the Code Blue shelter next to its headquarters – to give the homeless easy access to the services they require. What is so wrong with that?
Saratoga Springs, as you embrace the “Sport of Kings” and cheer on the majestic thoroughbred, please don’t shy away from the problem known as homelessness and act like it doesn’t exist in your fine city. The way to address homelessness is not to close your eyes and heart to it and bus the ‘toxic’ problem to another community. For, as Michael Finocchi, Executive Director of Shelters of Saratoga said last year, “That’s somebody’s mother, that’s somebody’s brother, somebody’s sister, somebody’s father that’s out there. And, bottom line is they’re humans. Just because they have some issues, doesn’t mean they’re outcasts.” So, I ask you to stop treating the homeless as “untouchables,” and start treating them as human beings.