SARATOGA SPRINGS – Homelessness should be addressed with compassion. This is what the Saratoga Springs City Council and mayor say they believe. In fact, these sentiments are stated explicitly in the first “whereas” of a recent resolution establishing a comprehensive plan to address homelessness.
Why, then, is the City Council also considering an ordinance that targets panhandlers?
The paradoxical points of view were on full display during a council meeting earlier this month. Yes, the council passed its comprehensive plan to tackle homelessness – a move that deserves commendation. But the action was undercut by the fact that prior to passing the resolution, the council heard from members of the public, appropriately criticizing a proposed aggressive-solicitation law, for nearly an hour.
(It’s worth noting that the unhoused and people who panhandle are not necessarily the same group, but there is no doubt ample crossover.)
At this point, there is no plan to vote on the city’s panhandling law, as Public Safety Commissioner James Montagnino said this week the right thing to do is to back off from the proposal as the city awaits for new homelessness services to come online. Hopefully, the proposed panhandling law continues to stay off the table.
First, let’s praise the good. The city’s homelessness initiative passed on Oct. 18 should allow Shelters of Saratoga to run a 24/7/365 facility where people can eat, sleep and bathe regardless of sobriety. The site is also expected to include a navigation center that connects members of the unhoused community with resources such as case management. This facility will eventually be housed at the current Senior Citizens Center of Saratoga Springs because, with the help of private donations, the seniors will be able to relocate to a revamped Saratoga Springs YMCA early next year. In the meantime, Shelters of Saratoga will operate an interim shelter on Adelphi Street, and the city has agreed to kick in the roughly $60,000 to permit the shelter to remain open beyond the county-funded “Code Blue” hours, which is when temperatures dip below freezing.
These plans are a strong start to addressing homelessness. Even more encouraging? The city is hoping that a 40-unit apartment building providing transitional housing can eventually be added to the current senior center site. All of this points toward progress.
More: More Andrew Waite
That is, until you factor in the proposed aggressive-panhandling ordinance. Over the summer, the council rejected an aggressive-panhandling law, but proponents of the latest proposal say the language has been made clearer to address what’s perceived to be a real problem. The ordinance is designed to address aggressive panhandling and solicitation in certain areas – such as near an ATM, a bus stop or in a parking garage – where people may feel threatened. Offenses result in an up-to-$250 fine and an appearance in the city’s homeless court, which is actually designed to connect the unhoused with a system of supports.
But this ordinance, while well-intentioned in its focus on aggressive behaviors, is unnecessary and sends the wrong message. There are already laws criminalizing violence and preventing people from being harassed.
Does the city really need a law that targets a certain segment of the population?
Saratoga Springs Mayor Ron Kim says homelessness is a top issue facing the city, and I believe his heart – and the hearts of other leaders – is in the right place. Kim says he worries about the safety of everyone that can result from people sleeping in the Woodlawn Avenue parking garage or asking for money on busy roads.
But if the issue is the dangers that could result from, say, someone sleeping in a parking space, surely there is another approach that could better address the concern. For instance, perhaps the city can designate certain locations as being off-limits for camping.
It’s also worth considering whether aggressive panhandling is really as rampant as it’s purported to be. The city has absolutely experienced an uptick in its homeless population in recent years. This can be seen in the 315 individuals experiencing homelessness that Shelters of Saratoga was in contact with last year, as well as anecdotal reporting from members of the unhoused community, who were happy to talk outside the Woodlawn garage earlier this week.
But it’s possible that people are conflating a larger homeless population with a rise in troubling panhandling behaviors. Randy, a 55-year-old who said he spends most nights around the Woodlawn garage, said he knows three people in the city who routinely aggressively panhandle. The rest of the people who panhandle are like him, he says. Every few days he spends some time holding up a sign that says “Hard times. God bless.”
If aggressive panhandling were truly disrupting life downtown, would the city be reporting soaring sales tax revenue? Would shops have reported booming business this summer? It’s clear downtown hasn’t been decimated by throngs of delinquents harassing people for handouts.
The city’s law enforcement should be able to monitor the behavior of a few bad apples without a law that targets an entire community. After all, members of the unhoused community said they already feel targeted. Randy said he feels like the dog under the table collecting scraps.
Saratoga Springs’ leaders need to show they are truly committed to making everyone feel like humans.
Columnist Andrew Waite can be reached at [email protected] and at 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter @UpstateWaite.
More: All Opinion | More Andrew Waite