Every time I drive into Saratoga Springs, I park my car in the same parking garage—the one right behind Putnam Market. Without fail, as I’m leaving there, I see a small group of homeless people waiting outside or staying warm near the elevator bank on the first floor. Oftentimes, I say a polite “hello,” and once or twice, I even stuck around to chat a few of them up. They are a daily presence there in the winter months, and with record-breaking lows across the country last week and equally frigid temperatures right here in Saratoga, I can’t help but wonder where these men and women are staying during the day. Are they just sleeping there in the parking garage, or do they have a warm place to go?
For nearly 30 years, local nonprofit organization Shelters of Saratoga (SOS) has been trying to provide them with the latter. Since 1991, SOS has been providing care and assistance to homeless people in Saratoga by offering them a way of staying off the streets via a path to self-sufficiency. Since 2013, SOS has also run an emergency winter homeless shelter, Code Blue Saratoga, open from November through April, when temperatures dip below freezing or when 12 or more inches of snow is predicted to fall in the city. The opening of the shelter was prompted by the December 2013 death of a homeless woman, who froze to death while sleeping in the loading dock behind the Saratoga Senior Center. Nowadays, the shelter accepts all individuals without restriction.
Despite the Code Blue shelter being a presence in town for six years, it’s had to change locations several times, and SOS has faced pushback from the community when it’s attempted to create a permanent shelter in or near Downtown Saratoga. The shelter’s current temporary location is in the basement and spare rooms of Soul Saving Station Church on Henry Street. But with no showers, one tiny kitchen and just two bathrooms for more than 50 people, the shelter is already running at capacity, and its staff stretched thin. “The numbers of homeless in Saratoga have substantially increased,” says Karen Gregory, who was appointed Executive Director of SOS last December. According to SOS, there were approximately 58 homeless individuals in Saratoga in 2013-14, and last year that number shot up to 162. “We’re still exploring options for a permanent site, and I’m hoping that we’re getting close,” says Gregory.
Up until last year, SOS had a site lined up on Walworth Street, next door to the nonprofit’s administrative office and drop-in center. SOS had made a number of guarantees to the community, including setting up a neighborhood watch and providing extra fencing and security around the site, and Saratoga’s Zoning Board of Appeals had even unanimously approved the building plan. But 22 neighbors and businesses around the proposed site derailed the plan when they sued the city for zoning violations (there’s no wording in Saratoga’s city charter for the zoning of a homeless shelter). Despite the setbacks, Gregory says that SOS is determined to keep searching for a permanent location. “One thing I will be starting in the very near future is a task force with the one and only goal of finding a resolution for Code Blue,” she tells saratoga living.
In addition to SOS, more than a few prominent Saratogians are equally dedicated to a permanent Code Blue shelter within Saratoga’s city limits. Since the shelter’s inception in 2013, Ed Mitzen, Founder and CEO of Fingerpaint, and his wife Lisa have volunteered their time and made generous donations to SOS. Ed says it’s been a life-changing experience for both of them: “As we got more and more involved, we realized that while [homeless people] may look scary if you don’t know them, a lot of the people staying at the shelter have just had some really bad breaks and made some poor decisions. Lisa and I think back to all the stupid stuff we did when we were younger, and by the grace of god, we landed where we did. But there’s a fine line between being successful and being homeless, and as you meet a lot of these people you realize, ‘Jesus, that could’ve been me.'”
Mitzen became so passionate about the project that he enlisted the help of his friend, Sonny Bonacio of Bonacio Construction, who agreed to build the proposed permanent shelter’s structure at cost. In addition to this, Adirondack Trust agreed to give Mitzen a zero-sum interest, construction loan of $1 million to fund the project. Ed doesn’t dismiss the concerns of locals, which range from effects to property values to safety, were a permanent shelter to be built somewhere in town, but he does believe it might help Saratogians to do a little soul-searching. “I understand if you haven’t volunteered and met a lot of these [homeless] people, it seems like an intimidating project, but what you’ll learn is that they’re just people who need a little help,” says Mitzen.
SOS and the Mitzens are hoping to find a permanent location for the shelter within the next three months. Ed says the current goal is to have the new shelter up and ready by this coming November or December. “I don’t know if that’s going to be doable or not,” he says. “We just keep fighting the good fight and hoping that this thing will eventually get over the goal line.” In the meantime, anyone can join the Mitzens by volunteering their time at Code Blue or making donations to SOS online or at one of their colorful donation drop-boxes in Downtown Saratoga (all donations go directly to SOS’ shelter services). The nonprofit will also be hosting its annual spring fundraiser, the Brighter Days Gala, at Longfellows on March 28. The next time I head to Downtown Saratoga, I might just make a detour over to SOS and volunteer some time or, if I’m in a hurry, slip some money into one of their drop-boxes. It may not seem like much, but it could help those people I see at at the parking garage find a warm, permanent place to sleep during the coldest days of the winter.