Shelters can be lifesaver for homeless
When I heard about the homeless woman who died earlier this week in Saratoga Springs, I found myself wondering what became of a homeless man I met about seven years ago.
At the time, the man, named Larry, was living on the banks of the Mohawk in a tent. It was November, and there was a chill in the air. But Larry was an outdoorsman and he was prepared: He had a 40-degree-below sleeping bag, cushions and beddings, and a supply of canned goods.
How had Larry come to live in the woods?
He told me that he was an alcoholic who had been to rehab a dozen times, and that he left his Lake Placid home after he threatened his wife with a shotgun. “I’m surviving,” Larry told me. “I ain’t freezing. I’m healthy, and it’s cheap.”
In the article I wrote, I observed that Larry was “worried about the cold, and those days when the temperature will dip well below zero. A friend is bringing him a small Coleman stove, and he builds a fire outside his tent every night. During the day, the bitter smell of old smoke hangs in the air. He has several handsaws, a hammer and nails and a friend is loaning him a chainsaw to make it easier to cut firewood.”
I don’t know what happened to Larry. I don’t know how long he stayed at his little camp. I don’t know whether he returned to rehab, or his home in Lake Placid. I don’t know whether he’s still alive. I hope he is. But if he wasn’t, it wouldn’t surprise me.
Winter is not an easy time for homeless people, as Gazette reporter Bethany Bump documented in her Sunday story last weekend. But it’s easier in cities with emergency shelters that will provide anyone who is not a threat to public safety with a place to stay on the most frigid nights.
Saratoga Springs has a good shelter — the Shelters of Saratoga. But the 32-bed facility is only open to people who are drug-and-alcohol free and have made a commitment to self-improvement.
Unfortunately, not everyone is capable of or willing to stay sober, even for a night. And these people should have some sort of emergency shelter option. It doesn’t have to be fancy. It just needs to be warm and welcoming to all. Even then, some people are likely to refuse help.
According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, 700 people experiencing or at risk of homelessness are killed by hypothermia annually in the U.S.
In a 2010 report, “Bringing Our Neighbors in From the Cold,” the Washington, D.C.-based organization writes that “an exemplary winter shelter would be open 24 hours each day between October 1 and April 30, regardless of temperature, as well as any other days during the year when the temperature falls below [40 degrees]. It would also admit all homeless people, regardless of sobriety status or past bans, unless they are violent or causing an extreme disturbance.”
Saratoga Springs is a small city, and it might not need an emergency shelter that’s open 24-7 from October to April. But it needs something.
And city officials seem to realize this, which is good.
Mayor-elect Joanne Yepsen has said she will work to create a Code Blue program to provide homeless people with emergency shelter on especially cold nights. Albany has a Code Blue program that goes into effect when the temperature is 10 degrees or lower and entails setting up extra beds and providing free transportation to homeless people. During a Code Blue, no one can be denied a place to stay, unless they pose a threat.
The woman who died after spending a bitterly cold night outside the Saratoga Springs Senior Center was 54-year-old Nancy Pitts. At this point, not a lot is known about Pitts and the circumstances that brought her to the streets. She doesn’t appear to have been in contact with relatives, which suggests her story is a sad one.
It’s easy to lambaste homeless people for making poor choices, but almost every homeless person has a sad, even tragic story to tell — of addiction, mental illness, job loss, difficulty adjust to civilian life after the military. Some of them, like Larry, are self-reliant and reluctant to seek help from the formal shelter system. Others are willing and ready to change their lives. Some have children in tow. Others are estranged from their spouses and families.
Emergency shelters don’t solve the problem of homelessness. But they do keep people alive.