Code Blue gets warm reception in Saratoga Springs
Homeless program helping more and more on cold nights
SARATOGA SPRINGS Wednesday night’s temperature was again expected to drop into the single digits, with a below-zero wind chill.
It was another Code Blue night, with a temporary shelter for the homeless opened in the parish center at St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church on Broadway.
Thanks to a bitter winter, it was the 11th Code Blue night in the 16 days since Saratoga Springs officials launched the program on Christmas Eve, and it may be open again tonight.
The launch grew out of the death of a local homeless woman in early December. After initially sheltering six people on Christmas Eve, the program has seen steady participation growth, with as many as 17 people coming in out of the cold for supper, a cot and breakfast the next morning.
“I think we opened it up just in time to save lives,” said Mayor Joanne Yepsen, who as mayor-elect was one of the organizers of the effort.
Emergency shelters throughout the Capital Region have seen an influx of the homeless due to the Arctic temperatures of the last week. The city of Glens Falls opened its first Code Blue shelter Tuesday night, when whipping winds made it feel like minus-15 degrees, and it is expected to keep it open through Friday morning.
To date, the most people the Saratoga shelter has taken in was 17 on Monday night, said the Rev. Dominick Ingemie, pastor of St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church, which hosts the shelter in its former school. Thirteen stayed Tuesday night.
“There’s a lot of repeats, but then there’s new people in and out,” the pastor said.
The church volunteered the space because it had space available on short notice, Ingemie said, and the location is central to places where the homeless gather. It’s also close to the daily soup kitchen at the New England Congregational-Presbyterian Church on Circular Street.
The people staying overnight get two meals and access to a community room with television and other activities.
“The need is critically important. It’s been like a wind-chill factory,” Ingemie said Wednesday.
The “no questions asked” shelter program was set up in response to the Dec. 12 death of Nancy Pitts, a 54-year-old homeless woman who died after sleeping outdoors on a cold night on the loading deck of the Saratoga Springs Senior Center.
The Saratoga program is modeled on Code Blue programs like the one in Albany, in which the City Rescue Mission opens to all on the coldest nights. Such programs are common in large cities.
Code Blue creates an alternative to the Shelters of Saratoga, a 32-bed homeless shelter that requires residents to make a commitment to improving their lives by remaining sober and seeking work. The Code Blue program takes people without such conditions.
“Our shelter in the wintertime is always 100 percent full,” said Peter Whitten, executive director of the Shelters of Saratoga.
The shelter takes people off the street or through referrals from organizations like the Saratoga County Department of Social Services.
Whitten praised the new program and the surrounding outreach efforts.
“Hopefully everybody on the street is getting the message that help is available to them,” Whitten said.
Shelters of Saratoga is one of six organizations rotating management of the Code Blue shelter.
“Everybody is collaborating wonderfully,” Whitten said.
The other lead organizations are CAPTAIN, the Saratoga County Economic Opportunity Council, Domestic Violence and Rape Crisis Services, the Giving Circle and the American Red Cross.
“The effort everyone in Saratoga Springs has undertaken is extraordinary,” Whitten said.
All those organizations have outreach programs that try to reach and develop trust with Saratoga’s homeless population, Yepsen said.
“We want our guests to see us as a trusted place to come in and have a place to sleep and get a meal,” Yepsen said.
The mayor said there are about 100 volunteers helping to staff the shelter, and monetary donations — collected without any solicitation — have totaled about $15,000.
“It hasn’t cost the city a penny,” Yepsen said. “St. Peter’s has been very gracious in letting us use their facility.”
Yepsen said there’s an agreement with a nearby hotel to open rooms if the shelter runs out of cot space, and the program’s intention is that nobody is turned away, no matter the demand.
“It’s going very well, and with the kind of winter we’re having, we plan to continue that,” Yepsen said.
The program will last until March 15, opening the shelter’s doors whenever the outdoor temperature is 10 degrees or lower with wind chill, or 12 inches of snow are anticipated.