Death in Saratoga points to challenge of helping city’s homeless
SARATOGA SPRINGS As temperatures dipped into the teens, Nancy Pitts spent her last night alive in the exposed rear loading area of the Saratoga Springs Senior Center.
As the sun rose Thursday, workers at the Williams Street facility tried to roust the 54-year-old homeless woman and a man who had taken shelter under the eaves there. When Pitts didn’t move, they summoned help.
Saratoga Springs police responded at 8:30 a.m. and called paramedics, who determined Pitts had died at some point overnight. Police Chief Greg Veitch said an official cause of death will be declared when autopsy and toxicology results are received, but no foul play is suspected.
Pitts’ death occurred as a deep freeze was descending upon the region. The temperature was only 12 degrees by mid-morning Thursday, according to the National Weather Service in Albany.
“It was really cold that day,” said Lois Celeste, the senior center’s executive director, who was working when Pitts was discovered last week. “It’s just very sad.”
The city’s street homeless population tends to congregate near the senior center and the rear of Congress Plaza. Celeste said the homeless often seek shelter around the senior center at night — something that is passively condoned as long as they vacate during its normal operating hours.
Celeste said Pitts was with a younger man whom she recognized. She said Pitts was wearing boots and a hooded coat, bedded down in an area with a few blankets.
“We don’t give them a hard time,” she said. “We’ve tried to help many of them.”
Options are limited for homeless people seeking shelter in Saratoga Springs, one of the more affluent cities in upstate New York. Some can take up residence at the Shelters of Saratoga, a facility with 33 beds in two buildings on Walworth Street and the city’s only overnight shelter, but space there is exclusively for those committed to staying alcohol- and drug-free.
“Some folks are so occupied by their demons — the things that caused them to be homeless in the first place — that they would not choose to avail themselves to that opportunity,” said Peter Whitten, the shelter’s executive director.
Whitten said the shelter is for those homeless people willing to make a long-term commitment toward self-improvement, which means those who are unwilling to undertake such a commitment can fall through the cracks.
He believes the city needs an area that serves as a middle ground — somewhere the homeless can drop in for shorter stays.
“I believe that’s a missing piece in the equation,” he said.
The issue of the city’s homeless population is one that also poses a challenge for police, Veitch said.
Officers often make referrals to other organizations that provide services, or sometimes make arrests when appropriate, but lack the authority to compel the homeless to seek help.
“The challenge of dealing with the homeless population in any locality is a community issue and one that the local police department has only a small part in addressing,” Veitch said in a statement. “The role of the officer on the beat is not to judge or condemn an individual, but to provide the necessary assistance to those in need and enforce the laws when appropriate while at the same time respecting the rights of an individual to live in a manner of their choosing.”
Community leaders and city officials have quietly started discussing the homeless population in Saratoga Springs after some suggested it appeared to be growing. Anita Paley, executive director of the Saratoga County Economic Opportunity Council, said her organization wants to be part of an emergency management plan that would assist the homeless at times when weather conditions become lethal.
“What I have seen so far is that agencies want to be a part of the solution,” she said in an email, “and I do believe we are all on track until something like this happens.”