First in a three-part series exploring solutions.
SARATOGA SPRINGS – Over the last few weeks, mingled with discussions about street performers and their impact – positive and negative – on business in downtown Saratoga Springs, many questions arose about the impact of the homeless population as well, especially vagrants who would block doorways or panhandle near business establishment entryways.
Gregory Veitch, chief of the Saratoga Springs Police Department, has been working with service providers and local businesses regularly. He understands the concerns of the business community, and recently spoke at the Saratoga Springs City Council on the subject, where he assured members and attendees that the department will uphold the law while honoring people’s Constitutional rights.
“You can’t arrest your way out of a homeless or vagrancy issue,” he said in a telephone interview. “We can arrest for criminal behavior, like lewdness or public urination, but we can’t arrest people for being homeless.”
Recognizing the complexity of the issue, the Saratoga Springs Downtown Business Association (DBA) invited homelessness service providers to speak at its general meeting on May 20, chaired by Tim Holmes, proprietor of Wheatfields Restaurant and president of the DBA. The topic was so well-received that anticipated attendance forced a venue change from Hattie’s Restaurant to a larger space in Northshire Bookstore.
Mike Finocchi, Executive Director of Shelters of Saratoga, Maggie Fronk, Executive Director of Wellspring, and Jamie Williams, Associate Director of the Franklin Community Center all answered questions and gave an overview of the situation and services available to the homeless population in Saratoga County.
“It was very well attended,” said Fronk. “At least 60 people were there. Although the impetus of the meeting was vagrancy, the tone of the meeting was very much about what is being done now and what can businesses do to help with solutions. There has never been a doubt about the compassion and community investment of our community leaders. Code Blue could not exist without businesses providing dinners and other fundraisers.”
Code Blue Saratoga Springs is an emergency shelter serving homeless people who might otherwise remain unsheltered during periods of extreme winter weather. Wellspring, formerly Domestic Violence and Rape Crisis Services of Saratoga County, offers crisis intervention and survivor services support to more than 1,000 clients annually, providing safe housing to adults and children either fleeing or homeless because of domestic violence, as well as comprehensive support in the form of counseling, legal advocacy, and case management.
“Domestic violence is the primary cause of family homelessness,” said Fronk. “Vagrancy is such a small proportion of the homeless population, yet they have been causing difficulties. It’s hard when homelessness impacts a business’s bottom line. I champion the idea of nonprofits and businesses getting together to build bridges toward solutions.”
Todd Shimkus, CCE, president of the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce, arrived at the May 20 meeting with a tangible idea to help both businesses and the homeless population: the new Saratoga Cares Card, which began from a conversation Shimkus had with Heidi Owen-West of Lifestyles of Saratoga six days earlier about a meeting she had with Mayor Joanne Yepsen and several nonprofit organizations the previous day.
“The idea for the Saratoga Cares Card came from that conversation, and Anita Paley, Executive Director at Saratoga County Economic Opportunity Council, took the lead,” said Shimkus. “To help Anita, I reached out and offered to get it printed and distributed at no cost to EOC. She sent me the information they had compiled. Christianne Smith of Designsmith Studio volunteered to create the card. She worked with Camelot Printing to get the first 1,000 printed within about 12 hours, so that we could distribute them at the DBA meeting on Wednesday.”
They printed and distributed 1,000 cards last week and plan to distribute another 5,000 this week. The information on the cards was provided by local social services agencies, who recommend that the best way the community can help those in need is to get them in contact with the range of agencies who are here to help them.
“That really is the purpose of the card,” said Shimkus. “Each of the agencies listed has a proven track record of really making a positive difference in the lives of those who come to them for support and assistance.” Businesses can hand the cards to members of the homeless population or to their customers, encouraging them to hand the cards instead of money to panhandlers.
Several ideas were discussed at the meeting, but the take-away for most businesses was the realization that there are foundational support systems available in the community that are too few to address the growing numbers of the homeless locally.
Finocchi of Shelters of Saratoga, 14 Walworth St, Saratoga Springs, said that last year, according to Code Blue, more than 400 people were assisted through the bitter cold winter, almost twice the number of the year before.
“The homeless community is a strong community,” said Finocchi. “They look out for each other, and this winter was so harsh that the ones utilizing Code Blue got to their friends and told them to get inside. Word of mouth got them indoors and saved lives. There was so much snow they couldn’t even pitch a tent. ”
There were many suggestions and ideas discussed at the meeting, everything from more foot patrols to expanding available services. Finocchi brought up the Friendship House that closed a couple years ago.
“There’s nothing for the homeless population to do during the day,” he said, “With Friendship House gone, they have nowhere to go but downtown.” The facility was open during business hours offering services to the homeless, such as case management, clothes, and basic daily needs.
“There’s a drop-in center in Schenectady that is making a world of difference - Bethesda House,” said Finocchi. “That’s what we need here – a drop-in center. Friendship house kind of did it, but we need a full center.”
According to Maddy Zanetti, vice president of DBA and principle of Impressions of Saratoga, the constructive conversations from the meeting will be ongoing.
“I think everyone who came left with a positive outlook knowing that the Chamber and DBA are working in concert with service providers and with City officials,” said Zanetti.
Fronk agrees. “Before now, all these discussions have been ‘siloed’ meetings, involving just providers or just businesses,” she said. “This is the first time that I’m aware of that we built a bridge between those silos, which will lead to more collaboration and information sharing.”
Zanetti added that attendees also gained a better sense of how hard it is for services to get the funds they need to meet the growing demand and that everyone needs to pull together.
“Nobody asks to be homeless,” said Finocchi. “We’re all just one paycheck away from it.”