SARATOGA SPRINGS – Mike Finocchi cast his eyes across the big room which stands on the corner where Henry and Caroline streets meet.
The executive director at Shelters of Saratoga took stock of the kitchen, where wood cabinets bookend a stove and microwave, a refrigerator and a freezer. He noted the spacious women’s and men’s restrooms, strolled through the large adjacent room where supplies and clothing will be stored, and imagined the dozens of cots that will be placed in the main room and made available to the city’s homeless population as a place to shelter during the harshest days of the impending winter.
After setting up shop at the Salvation Army building during the past two years, Code Blue Saratoga – which is under the guidance of S.O.S. – was in need of a new temporary center to house its emergency shelter. A lease agreement with Soul Saving Station, in effect from Nov. 1, 2016 to April 1, 2017, was announced this week. S.O.S. will pay the organization monthly rent. Finocchi declined to specify the amount, but called the cost “fair.”
“Thank God they stepped up,” said Finocchi. “It got to the point in the summer when you’re thinking: gosh, what are we going to do? We were running out of options.”
The need for a city emergency shelter during the winter months is great. In its first abbreviated winter season in 2013-2014, the emergency shelter was open 58 nights and housed 928 overnight stays. In each of the past two years, the shelter was open more than 80 nights providing more than 3,054 and 3,344 overnight stays, respectively, in addition to more than 1,700 others who were provided dinner during the winter seasons of 2014-15 and 2015-16.
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.
“You never know what leads one to being homeless,” Finocchi said. “It could be a bitter divorce, or someone who may have lost everything. You just never know.”
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.
"After Nancy Pitts, I was determined no one would die on the streets of Saratoga Springs ever again," Yepsen said Thursday. No city funds have been used in connection with the shelter.
The shelter initially opened when temperature 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 new threshold – likely to mark an increase in the number of days the shelter would operate - complicated the process for the largely volunteer staff in Saratoga. Code Blue’s previous hosts - the Salvation Army Worship and Community Center on Woodlawn Avenue – could no longer house the shelter on site because the increased days would interfere with their own programming.
“It’s easier for places in Albany, Schenectady and Troy who have mission type places to run that kind of program, but we don’t have that here,” said Finocchi, who added he was thankful Soul Saving Station stepped forward to make their Fellowship Hall available.
“As soon as they reached out to us, we said, ‘we have available space,’” said Arnold Byrd II, church pastor at Soul Saving Station. “It made sense to us. It’s something we should be doing. You have to be supportive of those who need help.”
Whereas the Salvation Army housed up to 100 cots, the new venue is slightly smaller. “It’s going to be a little tighter here, but the bottom line is no one needs to be sleeping on the street,” Finocchi said. “If it’s a little more snug than the Salvation Army, so be it, but at least people have an option other than the parking garage, or the woods and a tent.”
Given the geographic proximity to the plethora of bars and taverns along Caroline Street, Finocchi said the organization will be diligent in monitoring the shelter and will institute a midnight curfew, after which people may come in, but not go out.
Code Blue Saratoga will host a meeting and offer training for volunteers in October. Those interested in volunteering their time can sign up at: https://www.codebluesaratoga.org/wordpress/volunteer/how-to-volunteer/
For those interested in donating items, Code Blue Saratoga Director Cheryl Ann Murphy-Parant said the emergency shelter’s largest needs are men’s socks and underwear, canned food, and individually-wrapped snacks.