SARATOGA SPRINGS – Former construction worker Don Petersimes, 54, relaxed his lanky form into the Shelters of Saratoga couch with a contradictory air of confidence and nervousness. This was a man who had proven he could survive anything life threw at him, but could not be sure that life had stopped throwing.
Petersimes told his story without rancour or self-pity, accepting the results of the economic downtown with a shrug, and acknowledging his own mistakes in a straightforward manner. His only sign of frustration was with the inconsistency of support systems for people trying to rebuild after losing their homes and livelihoods.
“They make it so hard that you give up,” Petersimes said. “If you’re getting $186 a month in food stamps, then go get a part-time job for 20 hours a week, they cut you back to $46. You get penalized for doing better instead of helping you to keep going up.”
A construction worker who was battling alcoholism, he began working part-time so he could take care of his ailing mother.
“She had cancer, and I wanted her to see a sober son,” Petersimes said. And he did it. When she died, he had nowhere to go. The owner of the small company he worked for decided to get out of the construction business, so with no home and no job, he fell off the wagon.
“I stayed out on the streets for seven years,” he said. During that time, he witnessed both the best and worst of humanity play out in real time as government, businesses, service providers and citizenry tried to figure out what to do with him and others experiencing homelessness.
“We'd get blankets from the shelters and have to hide them during the day,” Petersimes said. He described how homeless people have to hide their belongings such as identification, marriage and birth certificates, toothbrushes and old photographs, while they are out looking for work or housing or help. He has seen those things get stolen or found and thrown away.
“I’ve seen police officers laughing while taking a knife and cutting up tents behind the bank near Price Chopper in the woods,” Petersimes said. “They told us to leave, and we did, but they didn’t give the folks who had tents the chance to take them down.” He cleared his throat and sat back, silent for a moment in the memory of seeing one person laugh while another's few worldly goods were being taken before their eyes.
Michael A. Finocchi is the executive director of Shelters of Saratoga, Inc. (SOS). When he met Petersimes, it had been three years since the homeless man had been sober.
“He had been given so much misinformation that he didn't have any incentive left to get sober,” said Finocchi. So they talked, not about alcoholism or where to go for help, but about music.
“I am not my disease,” said Petersimes. “Mike was the first person who seemed to realize that.”
Petersimes plays the guitar, and has earned money as a street performer. Finocchi was able to draw him out and get him talking about his love for music, and before long Petersimes was confiding in him.
“Don wants to be sober,” said Finocchi. “He doesn't want to be homeless. He just needed someone to believe in him and help him navigate the system.”
Finocchi has a clear view of the successes and failings of governmental and charitable institutions in the effort to help the homeless. SOS is the only shelter serving three counties, so he knows it is imperative that the shelter help its guests utilize all available resources so they can get back into jobs and housing as soon as possible, even if the system sometimes feels like one step forward and two steps back.
“You know you can only get cold food with food stamps,” Petersimes said. No home means no stove, so he could not buy meat or pasta or rice or most of the foods allowed with food stamps. “There's hot food at the soup kitchen, but then you have to deal with all the others. Some are crazy.”
Petersimes is representative of any intelligent adult whose paycheck-to-paycheck life could turn into homelessness with a single misstep or sudden life change, like illness or job loss.
Finocchi said, “You'd be surprised how many people have come through here who have said they had a house, a job for fifteen years, and lost everything when they were laid off. Family trouble came right after losing the house, and it spirals.”
We live in a society that punishes the inability to pay bills with more bills, so if just one more thing goes wrong financially, even the most hard-working intelligent person can end up in a hole he cannot climb out of alone – and that hole is sometimes homelessness.
“We assisted more than 400 people here last year,” said Finocchi. The facility is a home, with a comfortable living room and fireplace, books, a large kitchen where Petersimes cooks for his new extended family, bedrooms reminiscent of college dorms, dedicated case workers and a household filled with guests seeking to build a new life.
“A homeless person will be the person who wants help and doesn’t know how to navigate the system. A vagrant doesn’t want to make a change,” said Finocchi. He said he walks alone or sometimes with members of the police department downtown, talking to the homeless and letting them know what help is available to them.
“There’s nothing for them to do during the day,” he said. Some will panhandle downtown and try to find places to sleep or sit, partly because there is no where for them to go. Once in awhile someone will get into trouble with the law, but it is rare that it is ever anything serious.
According to Lieutenant Robert H. Jillson , Investigations' Division Commander and Public Information Officer of the Saratoga Springs Police Department, arrests of homeless individuals typically revolve around quality of life offences, not assaults or robberies.
“We’ll see open container violations, disorderly contact such as public urination, or trespassing,” said Jillson. “We’ll get calls for lingering, but that’s not illegal. When we get those calls, we’ll go assess the situation, but usually they are not doing anything wrong.”
Finocchi said a drop-in center would make a big difference. “It could provide case management, clothes, toothbrushes, and basic daily needs,” he said. He has seen very successful ones and, as a member of the Mayor's Housing Task Force, hopes to work with the City to have one created downtown.
“With the combined forces of the Code Blue Steering Committee and the Mayor’s Housing Task Force, we’re working on a continuum of care from emergency shelter to permanent housing,” said Mayor Joanne Yepsen. “I really appreciate the partnership I have with the local service agencies. We’ve had some great successes already, and have accomplished an end to Veterans’ homelessness. A drop-in center is one of the ideas being considered for future, but staffing is a real issue.”
The Mayor’s Housing Task Force meets once a month and is made up of ten government, private, and nonprofit representatives assessing current and considering future housing needs in Saratoga. The Task Force is considering the needs of artists, young professionals, and other populations as well as homeless individuals.
The Saratoga Springs community as a whole has been working very hard to help eradicate homelessness, and the local service providers express their gratitude in every conversation. That said, there is an overwhelming amount of work yet to be done, and government, citizens, and providers are all being asked to step up to the challenge.
“We get about 300 people who don’t even live here who need socks, shoes a meal or something, and we don’t turn them away. If we don’t have it, we tell them to come back the next day and we go get it,” said Finocchi.
The organization has developed a capital improvement plan to address these pressing needs. More information about the project and how to support it is located at www.sheltersofsaratoga.org/help-us/expansion/.
Franklin Center just completed a capital campaign and is holding a celebration of its new food pantry on July 14 from 6 to 7 p.m. For more information about Franklin Community Center visit the website www.franklincommunitycenter.org.
The efforts of these organizations and others in the area are a bright spot in the complicated road out of homelessness, and Petersimes is more than grateful.
“My sobriety is my first success,” Petersimes said. He is 62 days sober. “Then, in the wonderful friends I've made through my sobriety. I have hope again that I can have a life, that I can support myself on my own. I may need a little help getting there, but I have that here. I have help getting to doctor's appointments and meetings and job searches. The most support I've ever had is right here, at Shelters of Saratoga.”
He paused thoughtfully for a moment, then said, “There's this quote that I read once, but it's always stuck with me. That faith is in the presence of things unseen, but hope is faith in the presence of things seen. What they have done here is hope because I can see it. They showed it to me here – between Code Blue and the counselors and Mike [Finocchi]– they showed me that there is hope.”