SARATOGA SPRINGS — A downtown church hopes to break ground by the end of the year on a parish house that will include temporary housing for domestic violence victims with families, people in substance abuse recovery and others not served by existing shelter programs.
Citing Biblical injunctions to aid people in need, leaders at the historic Bethesda Episcopal Church on Washington Street are raising funds for construction of Mercy House of Saratoga, which was incorporated as a non-denominational, non-profit organization last October.
Plans call for a four-story, 30,000-square-foot building to be built at 26-28 Washington St., with parish offices on the ground floor and 18 apartments on the upper floors.
The church has already raised $6 million toward its $9 million goal, in part from selling church-owned properties. Church officials said they are confident of raising the rest. The church hopes to break ground by the end of this year, with goal of opening the doors for the winter of 2020-2021.
“Homelessness in Saratoga County is a by-product of our community’s economic success over recent decades,” said Gordon Boyd, president of Mercy House. “We will provide a resource to meet a major share of the need, but the work of others must continue and grow.”
The church is partnering with several agencies that already help people who are homeless or in transition, including the Backstretch Employees Service Team, the Transitional Services Association, Veterans and Community Housing Coalition, and Wellspring, which provides services to domestic violence victims.
“We’re working for a cohort here that would otherwise be homeless,” Boyd said. “They come to these agencies needing a place to live.”
Those organizations will recommend people to Mercy House and counsel them while they’re living there. Those living there will make rent payments, but Boyd said that in many cases the residents will qualify the federal rental subsidy vouchers. The church expects Mercy House to break even or better on operational costs.
Church officials said providing the housing fits with their religious mission. Mercy House will serve populations different from Shelters of Saratoga, which provides shelter to single men in recovery, as well as operating Saratoga’s winter Code Blue program.
“Mercy House will offer hope to people who are facing a tough stretch in their lives,” said Darren Miller, Bethesda’s senior warden. “The downtown location offers easy access to bus lines, a supermarket, a community center, employment opportunities and a primary health care facility.”
The first floor will be used primarily for church activities and parish offices, but residents and housing partners will have access for events, counseling and meetings like those provided by Alcoholics Anonymous, which is expected to hold meetings at Mercy House.
The upper floors will have one-, two-, and three-bedroom apartments for up to 47 individuals, church officials said. There will be an on-site residence manager, as well as a digital security system.
“They can stay there as long as they need to, but I think the expectation will be that they will stay anywhere from a few weeks to up to a year,” Boyd said.
Maggie Fronk, executive director of Wellspring, said safe shelter for domestic violence victims with families is badly needed. “Domestic violence is the primary cause of family homelessness in Saratoga County,” Fronk said. “Bethesda Episcopal Church’s housing program will afford individuals and families much-needed affordable hosuing with access to employment opportunities, public transportation and services.”
Those who work with people recovering from substance abuse or mental health problems have similar problems finding them housing.
“One of our biggest struggles has always been finding safe and affordable housing in the Saratoga Springs area that is accessible to resources and services,” said Sybell Newell, executive director of the Transition Services Association.
The fourth floor will be set up as dormitory-style for track workers recommended by the Backstretch Employee Services Team, which provides for the health and social welfare needs of the hundreds of Saratoga Race Course backstretch workers. Some of those workers are in the city from April through November, though there numbers swell during the racing season.
The backstretch workers space would house people in substance abuse recovery or recovering from injuries or surgery. Those beds will also be used in the winter, though Boyd said no plans are finalized.
Plans also call for a “pay as you are able” cafe, to be located on the building’s first floor and open to the community. “Everyone will be included and no one will be turned away,” said Frank Zarro, coordinator of In Our Name, which will operate the cafe. “We hope to help Mercy House’s guests to develop job-ready skills and habits to support the hospitality community.”
Plans for a new parish house have been on the drawing board for years. The plan originally was to lease parts of the building for non-profit offices and day care, but those plans weren’t working out, so Boyd said they started thinking toward the region’s housing needs. The need for homeless housing crystallized after Nancy Pitts, a homeless woman who attended the Bethesda church, died of exposure while sleeping outdoors in December 2013.
“Dignifying humanity has always expressed the heart of the church’s mission,” said the Very Rev. Marshall J. Vang, Bethesda’s interim rector.