SCHENECTADY — The two-story residence on Albany Street is unassuming.
But inside, SAFE Inc. is in the business of saving lives.
When the weather gets warm, Sheila Wood wants to have a cookout outside the emergency shelter for homeless, runaway and “throwaway” youth, conveying soft power to the community through grilled hamburgers and hot dogs.
She also wants to boost the non-profit group’s social media presence to better promote its programming, as well as bolster efforts to combat sex trafficking, which she said remains stubbornly entrenched in the Capital Region.
“I want SAFE to be a common name in the community,” said Wood, who took the reins as executive director in March. “I don’t want it to be the best kept secret in Schenectady anymore.”
The co-ed shelter has 12 temporary beds available for those between the ages of 16 and 20 and can also a provide a room for a parent with a young child.
The shelter has housed nearly 400 individuals in the past three years, approximately 40 percent of them under the age of 17.
In addition to food and shelter, clients are given access to life skills classes and counseling, making the shelter unique in the county, Wood said.
The non-profit also works closely with social service agencies to refer clients to appropriate services.
It’s not uncommon for runaway adolescents to have to apply for new Social Security cards or birth certificates, for instance.
Linking clients with affordable housing also remains an ongoing priority, Wood said, and has presented a mounting concern as Schenectady rents continue to rise.
“Stable, affordable housing is a very big issue in Schenectady,” Wood said.
Wood arrives at the position with years of experience in the health and human services sector, working with at-risk and emotionally challenged individuals, as well as with developmentally disabled and traumatic brain-injured youth.
A graduate of SUNY Empire State College, Wood has worked as a juvenile probation officer for Saratoga County and held various positions with Catholic Charities, Montgomery Transitional Services and Lexington Center.
More recently, Wood served as executive director for Capital District Respite, an agency which works with special needs children.
“That’s where my passion lies, working with youth and helping them to realize their potential,” Wood said.
SAFE has traditionally served abused and sexually-exploited youth.
The shelter will continue to work to bolster awareness of human and sex trafficking, or forcing a person to commit sexual acts through coercion and fraud.
Law enforcement officials and experts have said the Capital Region is prime territory for the crime due to its location at the crossroads of I-90 and I-87 with easy access to New York City.
A grant-funded program administered through the state Office of Children and Family Services, Safe Harbour: New York, has allowed SAFE to retain a clinical case manager to help identity forms of trafficking and educate the public, including motel staff, who are often at the forefront of transactions.
Oftentimes, outreach efforts can take the practice of slipping notes and literature under bars of soap in motel rooms, Wood said.
“Schenectady isn’t a large city,” Wood said, “but there is an issue here with sex trafficking.”
This can manifest itself in family members trafficking children for profit, she said, or those who prey on fresh runaways.
Trafficking can be particularly difficult to identify and combat, Wood said. The crime carries a strong level of stigma, particularly among males, which leads to fewer people seeking help.
SAFE also has to be watchful for those attempting to recruit their clients, who are already vulnerable, into the industry, Wood said.
“We don’t want to glamorize it,” Wood said. “We want to make sure [adolescents] know what it really is.”
Schenectady County District Attorney Robert Carney agrees with Wood’s assessment that the crime is difficult to combat, particularly as perpetrators increasingly turn to online tools and social media to both recruit and serve as a marketplace.
“That does make it easy to hide,” Carney said. “But when you find about it, it gives you a little more to work with.”
Carney cited the 2017 arrest of a Brooklyn man who was indicted in Schenectady County Court on numerous felony sex trafficking and promoting prostitution counts.
Of his more than a dozen prostitutes, prosecutors said, a number of them were from the Capital Region, with others coming from Massachusetts and elsewhere in New York state.
“That’s the kind of investigation we need to do more of,” Carney said.
One year of funding remains for the clinical case manager position provided through Safe Harbour: NY before the position is required to be self-sustaining.
Wood aims to take a muscular approach in procuring grants for the position and for other new and existing programming.
She believes the prospects for cross-collaborative opportunities with additional agencies are fertile.
“Schenectady is a community that’s resource-rich,” Wood said, who also credited existing staff at the facility as valuable assets.
She also aims to bolster the ranks of volunteers who provide service to SAFE clients.
And she wants to do more events to better familiarize the public with its programming and foster positive interactions in the community, as well as strengthen outreach through social media.
“I love a challenge,” Wood said.
SAFE’s annual garden party will be held at the Mohawk Golf Course on Sunday, May 5 from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m.
SAFE’s desire to bolster anti-sex trafficking educational and prevention efforts dovetails with broader efforts in the court system to address the crime.
Carney said the state Office of Court Administration is weighing the formation of a Schenectady-based human trafficking intervention court which would serve as a regional hub and draw cases from other communities.
Carney met with court officials on Monday to discuss the concept.
“We’re in the planning stages,” Carney said on Wednesday. “It would give us a venue, in my perspective, to go after people responsible for trafficking, or involved in it.”
Trafficking tends to occur in tandem with substance abuse and other crimes, he said.
“The whole idea is you deal with people arrested for prostitution and other crimes which leads detectives to believe where there may be trafficking going on, and offer services to get out of that lifestyle,” Carney said.
It’s often hard to reach victims, he said.
For years, prosecutors have attempted to steer victims into misdemeanor drug court. But he has found people often find it easier to serve a brief jail sentence than to break from an entire lifestyle.
But a specialized court offering a more tailored set of services may generate more success, he said.
The concept would require buy-in from the defense bar.