In my semi-regular column for saratoga living, I’ve had the pleasure of introducing you to a number of individuals struggling with homelessness in the Saratoga Springs community. Today, I’d like to give you an inside look at Shelters of Saratoga’s (SOS’) Community Outreach program, which is integral in helping assist Saratoga’s homeless population, especially during the winter months.
Before I became an SOS volunteer, I assumed that the organization simply provided a place for a homeless person to sleep and a warm meal—and not much else. Of course, I’ve learned that it does a lot more than just house and feed our needy. In addition to welcoming guests into its Walworth Street facilities and its emergency Code Blue shelter, located temporarily on Adelphi Street, SOS fills a van with supplies three times a week and hits the streets of Saratoga, tracking down homeless people and making sure they have what they need to survive. And this is nothing new for SOS: The organization’s been doing community outreach for a decade, and thanks to the Alfred Z. Solomon Charitable Trust, it’s always had a vehicle to support this important initiative.
Recently, SOS’ Outreach Coordinator, Tim Hoff, let me do a ride along.
I arrived at Shelters of Saratoga around 10am, and we got right to work, loading the van with generously donated items such as cans of soup and baked beans, microwavable macaroni and cheese, ramen noodle soup, cereal, shelf-safe milk, water, juice, granola bars, fruit cups, fresh eggs, mini muffins and toiletries. Tim handed me a clipboard and said, “Your job is to write down their names, what we give them and where they’re staying,” referring to the homeless people we were headed out to help. I had no idea where we were going or really how this all worked, so I was happy to have some clear instructions and marching orders. I hopped in the front seat and off we went.
First, we drove out to the Saratoga Springs Train Station to see if anyone was at the few encampments there in the nearby woods. Although we could see some fresh footprints in the snow and some tents, no one came out of the woods after Tim sounded the horn three times. As Tim pointed out the camps to me, he said that some people choose to stay out there year-round. It’s unimaginable to me that someone could survive the elements at this time of the year, living in a tent in the woods, day in and day out.
Next, we traveled over to a popular spot behind the Price Chopper on Route 50. We didn’t see anyone, but Tim knows two people that are usually there, so he swung by just in case they needed something.
We followed that up by stopping at eight different motels throughout Saratoga County. A number of them are used frequently by the Department of Social Services (DSS) to place people who are struggling with homelessness. If the motel had an office, Tim went in to ask the manager which rooms DSS had someone staying in, and we knocked on the doors and waited. At the motels without an office, Tim honked the van’s horn three times, and people emerged, one by one, from their rooms. As each door opened, I saw individuals, down on their luck, with nowhere to go. Despite this, everyone seemed happy to see us. As the people approached the van, they selected the items they wanted and expressed their heartfelt appreciation for us being there. Tim was wonderful, asking them if there were any specific items that he didn’t have this time around that he might be able to bring next time. Everyone was friendly; one gentleman was excited to share with us that he was moving into an apartment over the weekend, which of course, we congratulated him on. Another young man expressed anger in the wait time to be enrolled in an inpatient rehabilitation facility in order to finally kick his alcohol addiction. He’d already completed his detoxification and had an appointment the next day. Tim and I offered him some words of encouragement and support.
After visiting the motels, we headed into Downtown Saratoga to see if anyone was at the parking garage on Woodlawn Avenue. There were about a dozen individuals hanging around that we spoke with, offering them items from the van. Many of them start their day with breakfast at the Salvation Army across the street from the garage, using the restrooms and showers there. Then, they either catch a bus to their place of employment, head to the library or end up congregating for much of the day around the parking garage or in the first floor lobby.
After spending four hours in the van and seeing so many individuals struggling with homelessness, it made me realize the importance of the work done by SOS outside of their facilities. Its Community Outreach program positively impacts individuals throughout the county, and the level of compassion and empathy that Tim showed to these people far exceeded what was required of him. When asked what Community Outreach means to him, he puts it this way: “Behind every door is a lost soul, and being able to help them is so rewarding.” Tim and his wife, Cathy, started volunteering at Code Blue more than five years ago. You’ll often find them on Sunday mornings, preparing and serving breakfast to the guests at the Code Blue shelter. They’re well known and liked by the people struggling with homelessness in our community, and I can see why. SOS does far more than their name implies, and they’re lucky to have individuals such as Tim in their employ. As for me, I can’t wait to do another ride along.