SARATOGA SPRINGS – John Rolerad was in his 70s the first time he stayed in a Code Blue shelter. It was a rainy and cold fall night in 2020, and he’d been living in the woods in Glens Falls for several days. The now-75-year-old said he knew he wouldn’t be able to survive very long if he had to keep sleeping outside, so he was relieved to find respite at the Open Door Mission Code Blue shelter in Glens Falls. That facility then connected him to Shelters of Saratoga, which housed him for half a year while he found his footing and secured an apartment.
A former professional cook, Rolerad helped out with meal preparation during his time at the Saratoga Springs shelter on Walworth Street. And when he was able to move into his own apartment, he was so grateful to the staff and community at Shelters of Saratoga that he decided to come back as a volunteer cook.
“I wanted to help the people that come here, because I know what it was like, and I thought with my skills I could train some of the people who have never cooked before – besides [using] the microwave,” Rolerad said Monday as he spread chicken wings and thighs onto a baking sheet. He’d be serving the chicken with macaroni and cheese, salad and dinner rolls.
Rolerad’s experience paying it forward seemed especially relevant this week as Saratoga County was poised to renew the lease on Saratoga Springs’ Code Blue shelter at 145 South Broadway on Tuesday. The agreement, good from July 19 through April 30, 2023, ensures the county has a facility to house people experiencing homelessness during cold winter nights. The lease agreement with property owner Joanne Kodogiannis for $8,000 per month, allows the county to continue to host a Code Blue shelter at the same site it has been using as a Code Blue shelter for the past three winters.
Separate from the county’s more permanent shelter on Walworth Street, which houses people around the clock for an average of 54 days, Code Blue shelters provide overnight housing when temperatures drop below freezing.
Saratoga County’s Code Blue shelter averaged 44 people over 160 nights last winter, according Stephanie Romeo, associate executive director of Shelters of Saratoga. The Code Blue facility hosted 286 unique individuals from November to April, Romeo said.
At Code Blue shelters, guests are provided a pillow, blanket and cot, as well as a hot meal, which is donated by local organizations and restaurants.
“People really get excited for vegetables. They are not as common, so when we do have nice veggies, people get excited for that,” said Allison Nolan, who provides outreach support for Shelters of Saratoga. Chipotle is also a big hit, Nolan said.
While support staff at Code Blue shelters are trained to de-escalate any conflicts that arise, Nolan said guests are typically peaceful. Sing-alongs at the Code Blue shelter are commonplace, Nolan said, whenever one of the guests brings a guitar or another plays classic rock from a speaker.
Guests at Code Blue shelters aren’t asked to provide much more information than their name, and while they aren’t allowed to bring in weapons, drugs or alcohol, people under the influence are permitted. The goal is to have a low barrier of entry so that people are encouraged to come inside and stay safe, Romeo said.
Code Blue shelters often serve as an introduction to other homelessness services provided by Shelters of Saratoga, Romeo said. Shelters of Saratoga was in contact with 315 individuals experiencing homelessness last year, Romeo said.
Shelters of Saratoga has 23 beds at two buildings on Walworth Street. While Shelters of Saratoga relies heavily on grants and donations to operate its main shelter and employ a staff of about 30, including part-time support staff, funding for the Code Blue shelter comes from the county, Romeo said.
The main facility on Walworth Street feels very much like a home. The living room has four couches. The fridge is filled with deli meats, dinner leftovers and yogurts. The pantry downstairs is stocked with Cheerios, granola bars and peanut butter.
While staying at the shelter – typically for no more than 90 days – guests receive help from Shelters of Saratoga support staff and program staff with everything from acquiring necessary forms and pieces of identification to apply for jobs to finding housing to maintaining sobriety.
Adam Doyle, a 40-year-old who said he has a psychological disability and has been at the Walworth Street shelter for six weeks, said last week one support staff member went to the pharmacy to get Doyle’s heart medication when his supply ran low.
Phil Barrett, Clifton Park’s Town Supervisor and a member of the Saratoga County Board of Supervisors, said signing the new lease agreement at the Code Blue shelter allows the county to continue to offer vital services to help the homeless population. Still, Barrett said more needs to be done.
“We’re in the process of developing additional ideas to help alleviate the issue of homelessness in Saratoga County,” Barrett said. “We’re going to continue to have those discussions, and we are all agreeing that we need to work together to get people on a positive track.”
Gabrielle Renzulli, 24, has been living at the Walworth Street shelter for about a month. She said she has a housekeeping job lined up at a local hospital that will begin in two weeks, after she gets her second COVID-19 vaccine dose. Raised in Queensbury, Renzulli said she spent three days on a Greyhound bus to come back to upstate New York after her boyfriend in Texas became abusive. She came to this region because she said the homelessness resources here are better than in other areas.
While Renzulli said she has never spent a night in a Code Blue shelter, she said if her situation had occurred just a few months earlier, she very well may have found herself landing at the facility on South Broadway.
“It’s definitely important because it gets really cold up here in the north. The ice and snow is deadly here,” Renzulli said. “Just having some place to go for the night to be able to sleep and recover and get back at it the next day, it’s having that place at night to rest your head.”
Andrew Waite can be reached at [email protected] and at 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter @UpstateWaite.