Schenectady County

Director: Safe House needs more room

A 15 percent increase in runaways has Safe House begging for help.

A 15 percent increase in runaways has Safe House begging for help.

The Albany Street shelter needs to add an extension onto its building to handle the increased need, Executive Director Delores Edmonds-McIntosh said.

There’s not much space on the cramped lot, but she thinks she could fit a 1,500-square-foot addition, which would give her space for two more bedrooms. That could allow her to house as many as five more children each night, if she can raise another $300,000 for the $500,000 project.

She’s hoping to raise the money this year.

Her statistics are grim. Not only is there an increase in teen runaways in Schenectady, but more young mothers are fleeing to Safe House with their children in tow and more teens are arriving with serious trauma from sexual abuse.

However, she has seen one positive sign: fewer of them are prostitutes.

When Safe House opened 19 years ago, its mission was to help the city’s young prostitutes. At first, virtually all the runaways coming there had engaged in prostitution; only 2 percent had not, Edmonds-McIntosh said.

Now, about 15 percent of the city’s runaways go to Safe House first, instead of bartering their bodies for a place to live, she said.

Still, that means 85 percent of the Safe House clients were forced into sex before they sought help.

“That same old survival sex is huge in that population,” Edmonds-McIntosh said. “They don’t see it as prostitution. They say, ‘I have sex with you, you let me stay.’ ”

Safe House workers walk the streets four days a week in hopes of reaching children before they make that decision. That’s led to the increase in non-prostitute clients, Edmonds-McIntosh said.

The street outreach workers also try to convince teens that they are being exploited when they agree to sex in exchange for a bed or a meal. But they find that many of the teens have been having sex for years — abused by family, teachers or other trusted adults.

“We focused on the teenagers on the street prostituting. As we delved in it more, we began to see abuse across the board,” Edmonds-McIntosh said. “Many times we get kids in who need very special attention. Some of them have nightmares and, I hate to say it, bed wetting. Many of them need the lights on. All of this stems from abuse.”

Many of the abused children are scared of the dark because that’s when they were molested, she said. Due to their fears, they often need to sleep in their own room rather than sharing with another teen.

That’s another reason why Safe House needs to build more bedrooms, Edmonds-McIntosh said.

The agency also needs more room for young mothers with children. Safe House has just one room with a crib now, and when that room is filled, it must turn clients away.

“We have quite a waiting list at times,” Edmonds-McIntosh said. “We’re seeing more mommy or dad with an infant or toddler.”

The agency has also seen an increase in 16- and 17-year-old runaways. In total, the agency helped 170 clients in 2007, compared to 148 clients in 2006.

“The problem that we face is we’re seeing more and more clients,” Edmonds-McIntosh said.

To expand, the agency would build an addition in the area currently used as a garden. The garden would be re-created elsewhere; Edmonds-McIntosh wants to keep it because it’s good therapy.

Edmonds-McIntosh will ask the Planning Commission to approve the addition next week. She hopes to begin building in 2009 with the goal of opening late in the year.

To accomplish that, she’s accepting donations of any kind. When Safe House first opened, community groups even helped paint the rooms.

“Of course, money will get the building up, but people can donate other items,” Edmonds-McIntosh said. “We want to get all new beds — everything here is 19 years old. We’ll welcome all kinds of help.”

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