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Saratoga Springs' growth taking a toll on homeless

Saturday, December 21, 2013
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The homeless population has become more visible around Saratoga Springs in the last year or so, provoking talk that something needed to be done.

Merchants don’t need them panhandling tourists, for one thing, and the contrast between their situation and the opulent wealth displayed in parts of the city should trouble anyone who thinks about how a society should manage its resources.

Quiet discussions have been brought to a head by the Dec. 11 death of Nancy Pitts. She may have been homeless and an alcoholic, but no one should freeze on an outdoor loading dock on a night cold enough to make ice cubes.

Mayor-elect Joanne Yepsen began pushing immediately for a new emergency shelter program. On Friday, she announced one will start Tuesday at the former St. Peter’s School on Broadway.

But here’s an aspect of the situation people aren’t saying much about: For the destitute, the problem of finding shelter has been seriously aggravated by the city’s ongoing redevelopment.

The downtown Broadway parking lot, built into a hill so there was space underneath where people took shelter, was replaced last year by a the new commercial building anchored by the Northshire Bookstore. High-rise condos overlooking Congress Park have made its shadowy corners less welcoming.

On the West Side, meanwhile, new housing has displaced people who used to live in small tent cities in the woods. Small encampments near Skidmore College have also been dispersed in recent years.

So some of the new visibility of those on the margins on society is due to dislocations to make more places for the well-to-do. It’s also possible the number of homeless is growing.

“I think it’s a little of both,” said Lillian McCarthy, director of community services for the Saratoga County Economic Opportunity Council.

The council provides free meals daily at the Presbyterian-New England Congregational Church. The people who work or volunteer there have a direct sense of what’s going on on the street.

“Redevelopment downtown is pushing them out of places they used to have to stay warm,” McCarthy said.

In the soup kitchen, they do what they can for people, without judging folks like Pitts, who took joy, those who knew her said, in feeding bread to the Congress Park ducks. They know people living in tents.

“We just gave a fellow duct tape to tape up his tent,” said one kitchen worker.

The Rev. Coqui Conkey, who officiated at the church’s moving service for Pitts on Thursday, did a fine job pointing out why even the destitute deserve dignity and why we should all be more troubled by homelessness at this time of year — and not just due to the upstate cold. For Christians, it reverberates with the story without which their religion couldn’t exist.

The Christmas narrative is, after all, the story of a young couple, one heavy with child, who could find no decent shelter for the night.

 
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