SARATOGA SPRINGS — Meeting Deanna Hensley for the first time is like meeting an old friend, a great quality in a homeless outreach coordinator. Her giant heart shows in her welcoming smile and gentle, fierce protection of Saratoga Springs’ homeless neighbors. On Friday, August 12, Hensley invited me, Congressman Paul Tonko (NY-20), and congressional staffer Marilyn Smith to ride along with her during her outreach work for Shelters of Saratoga (SOS).
We began in Congress Park, meeting at the park’s north entrance in front of her white van. “I usually have the RV, but it’s in the shop,” said Hensley. “I park in the same spot so they know to look for me here. It’s not rare for me to make 25 contacts in a day.”
It was a beautiful morning, a summer breeze lifting spirits while cooling the temperature across the green, tree-dotted grassy expanse. Mothers were pushing strollers, a visiting family was tasting the spring waters at the pump, and joggers were getting their morning exercise. And here and there, among the typical Saratoga Season crowd, a few men slowly walked in, found a shade tree, and lay down to sleep. One here, one there, seemingly random but some had their favorite spots. We watched as Hensley walked over to each of them, checking to see if they needed medical assistance or water or even a pair of socks. “Sometimes they’ve been drinking and are sleeping it off,” said Hensley. “Sometimes they are angry, or sick, or just have headaches. They don’t pay attention to hydration. They appreciate someone out here noticing and saying ‘hey, drink water.’” Hensley is careful, and listens well to the homeless neighbors in her care so she can keep them and herself safe. “We do have people who take advantage and try to prey on the weaker ones,” she said. “You never know what you might find walking up to someone, just have to be ready for anything. I do my research, so I know whether or not I’m walking up on a sex offender or someone with a violent history. So far I have not had anyone threaten me, and I think it’s because you have to show you care. They know me out here, know I can stand this close, and they have nothing to fear from me. If they ask for a hug, I’ll give it. One guy told me he hadn’t had a hug in 8 years. Can you imagine?” She opened the back of the van (filled with water bottles, t-shirts, baby wipes, foot powder, ramen noodles, toothbrushes, toothpaste, and sometimes tarps and sleeping bags) as Shawn walked over, a former roofer suffering from alcoholism and other issues. “Hi, Shawn, how are you feeling today?” asked Hensley, as if she’d known him forever. “Want some raviolis?” Shawn stood a little hesitantly at first, unsure of us strangers around the van, but Tonko reached out to shake his hand and learn a little more about him. Shawn had once had a family, a home in Ballston Lake, and a job roofing and siding, but one mistake led to another, and like many in trouble who lack support, he tried to find solace in alcohol, and has been homeless 9 years and 7 months as a result. His daughter, Michaela Rose, is 10 now. “It makes me not think,” he said about the drinking. “I don’t want to think anymore.” He sat down on the pavement between the van and a parked car to empty his sneaker. Hensley put a bottle of water by him and some food in his backpack. His blue eyes would make Sinatra proud, and his ready smile belied the serious resignation in his eyes. “I’m going to die soon,” the 34-year-old told us with an unnervingly quiet calm that made me want to check his pockets for anything he might hurt himself with. “I gave up on myself. I’m in such rough shape. It is what it is.” And he smiled, as if he were trying to make us feel better. Hensley and Tonko stepped aside and spoke urgently with him, and later Hensley told me that she wished she could throw a burlap sack over his head and just take him to a doctor, but she can’t take him unless he wants to go. According to Hensley, 85 to 90 percent of the people she meets tell her they have a pain inside that they can’t kill, so they try to kill it with alcohol. “There are so many like Shawn,” she said. “Good people, locals. That guy over there was an engineer at GE, worked 31 years. His wife got sick, and he lost everything to debts. Now he’s on the street.” Tonko told me he felt it was important to see the situation with his own eyes. “There are too many faceless discussions about homeless solutions,” he said. “Anecdotal evidence is a powerful tool to get things done. If our neighbors are homeless and struggling, we need to find a way to address their needs with care and dignity.” Hensley has so many stories to tell the Congressman. She talked about Alex, a Saratoga native who turned 21 on Thursday, Aug 25. His mom moved him from home to home, until he finally ended up in foster care, “…where bad things happened,” said Hensley. “He was severely abused in foster care.” “Locally?” I asked. “Locally,” she answered seriously. After that, she said, Alex didn’t feel safe in any system, not even SOS. Another man walked up as well as a teenager and a woman. Shawn and the three additions all knew each other and they all knew Hensley. The scene could almost have been a family out for a picnic, but one was joking one minute and crying the next, and the youngest played it cool, showing me his prison tattoo. He had good news – he had just landed a job putting labels on bottles at a local brewery. They needed care, though, including showers and a safe place to sleep. One homeless man reached up to his head, politely excused himself, and bent down to swipe the dust from his scalp, which showered down as if he’d spent a week at the beach. Even he was surprised and said he had been careful to sleep on the sleeping bag and not in the dirt. Not one of us stepped back from him, though, and it was clear that even those of us just visiting couldn’t help but have our hearts reach out to this fellow needing a little human compassion. Hensley began her work with SOS in March of this year, and has already built trust and helped many members of the local homeless community. Her vast experience stems from her work with the homeless in Las Vegas, Nevada, where she worked in a few different capacities, including in an adolescent acute unit for several years. When asked what she hopes to gain from hosting ride-alongs with reporters and elected officials, Hensley said, “We need easier access to detox and rehabilitation facilities, places that won’t keep them for only a few hours.” Currently, Hensley drives her “guys” to either St. Peter’s in Albany or St. Mary’s in Troy for those services. Anecdotally, she hears from homeless individuals that local places will take them in for three or four hours and then discharge them. Hensley hopes that legislators at the state and federal levels will understand that health coverage for the homeless population needs to cover longer-term detoxification, so it is out of their systems and they are given education and support to keep it out, as well as counseling services to address the underlying problems that made them become addicted to substances or alcohol in the first place. “Once you treat the addiction, you have to treat the person, and we need that. I will put them in the RV and take them, then and there, if they say they are ready for rehab,” said Hensley. “I don’t want to risk losing that window.” Hensley was glad Tonko came along and spent so much time on the ride along. At one point, she told him, “Normally they clam up around strangers, but they really opened up with you. You could be an outreach person.” After a couple hours, we left Congress Park in her van to visit an abandoned encampment, a home for the homeless. She surprised us when she pulled to the side of a road in a well-known section of the city, and took us to a hidden path through the woods we would never have seen without someone showing it to us. We climbed over a fallen tree; slipped a little down a hill; crunched through dead leaves, mud and underbrush; and found ourselves in a small clearing. The trees muffled the sounds from the road, and the beauty of healthy green plants and trees seemed incongruous next to the broken bottles of vodka and overturned shopping carts. As I stood there surveying the empty food wrappers, a torn tarp, tufts of grass peeping up around shards of glass and a moldy pillow, I imagined people sleeping here. It was peaceful, a hiding place from everything about the world that could scare you, a place where you could hide even from yourself. Someone like me, educated and with years of work experience, or even someone like Tonko, who has dedicated his career to public service, could one day find ourselves in a hidden home like this. One mistake, one economic downturn, one house fire, one illness – and everything I – or Tonko – or Hensley – or anyone – had built could disappear. That could be me, numbed to sleep by alcohol and rustling leaves, on that pillow, grass, and glass. In that quiet place, Hensley asked us what it would be like to have to live with nothing but our own thoughts, regrets, frightening memories. What it would be like to have to choose to live, not just day by day, but hour by hour. “Some people say they should just get up and get a job,” said Hensley. “They say it as if a homeless person just decided one day they’d be more comfortable sleeping and drinking on the ground, that it would be more comfortable than having a home or a job. It’s sad to see that stigma. People only see the aggression, but not what’s behind the aggression. They [the homeless] are not the bad guys. These are mothers, fathers, brothers, daughters.” Bottom line, human resiliency depends on a support system, meaning people who care, who have giant hearts like Hensley. If such a person, friend, relative, neighbor doesn’t exist in your life, it’s that much harder to get up from a fall, especially a tragic fall. There but for the grace of God and the caring people in my life, go I. Hensley said the one thing she wishes everyone would take to heart is, “Just because someone is unshowered and sitting against a tree with a backpack doesn’t mean they should be judged; it doesn’t mean they don’t deserve your kindness. Be kind to everyone, because, as the saying goes, you don’t know what battle they are fighting.” And no one could be kinder than Deanna Hensley. To support her work and the countless other volunteers and professionals working with the homeless in Saratoga, a series of colorfully-painted drop boxes have been placed along Broadway to accept check and cash donations. [See our story “New Donation Boxes Hit the Streets of Saratoga Springs” by Allison Capasso in Saratoga TODAY’s August 19 edition.] For more information about Shelters of Saratoga or how you can help, visit sheltersofsaratoga.org or call 518-581-1097.