SARATOGA SPRINGS — It was born of a community’s compassion on Christmas Eve in 2013, in the aftermath of tragedy that claimed as victim one of its own. On Valentine’s Day it received a gift of permanence that promises to help provide a successful continuum of care for its survivors.
Local business owner Ed Mitzen, and his wife Lisa, announced Tuesday they will pay for the costs of a new Code Blue homeless shelter to be built on the current Shelters of Saratoga property on Walworth Street. Shelters of Saratoga, or S.O.S., oversees the Code Blue program, and siting an emergency shelter at a permanent location has been a high priority following a series of temporary shelter venues that have been staged at St. Peter’s Parish Center, the Salvation Army building and the Soul Saving Station Church.
“This phenomenal gift solves the consistent challenge we have faced over the last few years of providing a permanent home for Code Blue,” said Michael Finocchi, executive director of S.O.S. Initial plans call for a two-story building with a large kitchen, laundry room, men’s and women’s sleeping rooms, multiple showers and bathrooms, a large storage area for donated food and clothing, and a small Code Blue office. Local firms Bonacio Construction and the LA Group will be involved in the development of the building and both have agreed to forego any profits to keep the costs as low as possible. Design plans will be evaluated by the city’s Land Use boards. Finocchi said ideally, the new building will consist of 6,500 square feet of space and house about 50 beds. The hope is that the new building will be operational by Nov. 1.
Need for Shelter is Great
The average number of overnight guests this season – 41 per night – is an all-time high, as is the number of openings – 89 nights as of Valentine’s Day – already surpassing all previous season totals, with presumably more to come til warmer climes prevail. The shelter initially opened when temperatures dipped below 20 degrees Fahrenheit. Earlier this year, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order which directed emergency shelters to operate when temperatures dropped below 32 degrees.
The need for a city emergency shelter during the winter months is great. Between 2007 and 2015, although homelessness nationwide decreased by 11 percent, it increased in New York, rising by 41 percent, according to the 2015 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Between 2014 and 2015 alone, New York State’s homeless population jumped by 7,660 - the largest increase in the nation for the one-year period.
The Code Blue Saratoga program was born from the tragic death of Nancy Pitts. The 54-year-old mother of two sought shelter on a Williams Street porch during a frigid December night in 2013. She was discovered by police the next morning. Within days of the homeless woman’s death, a cooperative partnership between then mayor-elect Joanne Yepsen, non-profit organizations, and members of the community was initiated and a plan set in motion to site an emergency shelter in the city.
“The proposed plan gives Code Blue a permanent home, as opposed to its current revolving status, which will be critical to ending homelessness in Saratoga Springs,” said Yepsen, who also publicly thanked Ed and Lisa Mitzen “for making our long-term goal a reality.”
Ed Mitzen, owner of the marketing agency Fingerpaint Marketing, grew his local health care ad agency Palio Communications from a five-person shop to a multimillion-dollar company with nearly 200 employees. In 2006, he sold the company and two years later founded Fingerpaint Marketing, eventually setting up shop on Broadway in a building formerly occupied by Borders Books and Music. In an interview with this reporter in 2015, Mitzen said philanthropy is a core value. “We’re blessed and fortunate to have good jobs and good careers and we feel a tremendous sense of pride to be able to give back to the community,” Mitzen said. “We’re always looking for ways we can help other people.” The donation includes costs for the building and amenities, such as appliances, although operating costs will come from other means. S.O.S. currently operates two other buildings on its property as well as a twice-a-week “drop-in” center which draws 20 to 22 people each day. Finocchi said having the Code Blue shelter on the same grounds will be beneficial. “Having Code Blue in close proximity to the case-managed shelters maximizes the opportunity for Shelters of Saratoga to provide the full continuum of homeless services to the individuals we serve,” Finocchi said. “This project will allow us to more easily connect homeless individuals with the support services they need, including case management, mental health counseling, and alcohol and drug rehabilitation. Our ultimate goal is to get them stable and housed.” Over the past four years, 36 individuals who have used Code Blue services have successfully transitioned into the Shelters of Saratoga case managed shelter.