SARATOGA SPRINGS — Parents at Saratoga Central Catholic School expressed outrage and frustration Monday evening regarding the city’s plan to put a homeless shelter at 5 Williams St., which borders the school’s outdoor fields.
Several dozen parents and community members gathered Monday evening at the Holiday Inn after having to change locations. The event was originally supposed to be held at the school, but was changed after the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany indicated the school would hold a formal meeting some time in February with school officials, families and Saratoga Springs Mayor Ron Kim.
Kevin Zacharewicz, who has one daughter attending Saratoga Central Catholic, and sits on the school’s security committee, said Monday that community members still wanted to meet on their own to discuss the matter. He spoke out against having the homeless shelter in close proximity to the school Friday.
“We’re sharing a property line with them,” he said. “It’s not like it’s down the block or 10 feet away. We’re literally neighbors, right on top of each other. We want to make sure that our kids are protected.”
The school and shelter would share 223 feet of property line, Zacharewicz said during the meeting.
Albany Diocese Superintendent of Schools Giovanni Virgiglio on Monday said school officials and Saratoga Central Catholic board of trustees members met with Kim and city Public Safety Commissioner James Montagnino to discuss the shelter.
“Mayor Kim assured our group that no plans have been finalized, agreed to meet with our school community to listen to concerns and committed to an ongoing dialogue to ensure that any considerations would not compromise school safety,” Virgiglio said in a statement released following Monday’s meeting.
“The safety and well-being of our students and SCC community guides our decision-making and that is clearly our intention with this situation. At the same time, we cannot forget that care for the most vulnerable among us is a cornerstone of what we believe and teach as a Church,” the statement said.
A petition has started on Change.org with the goal of stopping the shelter from moving to William Street. That petition had gained over 1,100 signatures as of Monday evening.
“By being willfully blind to any issues or risks that a homeless individual could pose to the shelter and the school children next door, the city is thrusting the entire burden on to the entire community of Saratoga Springs to deal with the potential consequences resulting from the permanent location of a low barrier shelter,” states part of the petition. “The city has extensive experience with the impacts that the city’s homeless issue has had on downtown, but has nevertheless decided to merely relocate those impacts to the doorstep of a school that has been educating children in the same location in the city for more than the last 150 years.”
Last October Kim announced plans to move the senior center, currently housed in the 5 Williams St. building, to the new addition to the Saratoga Springs YMCA on West Avenue and then make the Williams Street location a year-round homeless shelter and navigation center.
Once the building is ready this year, Shelters of Saratoga, which is currently operating a Code Blue shelter at 4 Adelphi St., would move that operation to Williams Street and establish a navigation center to help people with various services.
Kim said he’s reached out to other organizations, such as RISE, about operating the facility as a year-round homeless shelter, not just when Code Blue is in place.
“If shelters can only do a Code Blue, well we don’t think that’s adequate at this point,” the mayor said. “The reason for that is very simple, you just have to walk over to Woodlawn Garage. We have to address that and a Code Blue shelter that’s only open when it gets below 32 degrees isn’t going to do that.”
He said people are in the garage throughout the year.
“It’s no longer tolerable for us to accept that people are living in a garage in an open area,” he said. “We need to do better and the city is ready to establish that kind of shelter that addresses that and we’re hopeful that one of the great agencies that addresses homelessness in the city will step up and do that for us.”
Kim said that he is open to talking to the school about any of the concerns being raised, but also noted that the clinic many of the people who are homeless use is near the school and the current Code Blue shelter is down the street.
“We want to mitigate to the greatest extent possible the impact of the homeless shelter near them,” he said.
Shelters of Saratoga Executive Director Duane Vaughn said the location had been in the works for over a year, if not closer to two years.
“We consider ourselves part of the community, so it’s not just our homeless neighbors we’re concerned about, it’s the parents of school children, it’s the school children, it’s the city government, it’s our neighbors,” he said. “We want to find the best resolve that fits for everyone. The focus should be on community.”
He said that the organization has been able to make the atmosphere at the Code Blue shelter a safe one over the last couple of years.
Zacharewicz said families aren’t against the homeless or a shelter but they’re against the shelter being in that particular location.
“Some people will come to us and say ‘Hey, you’re a Catholic community, how can this happen? How can you say no to a homeless shelter, that’s your faith,’” he said Friday. “Well we’re saying yes, but watching out for our children is also part of our faith and making sure our children are safe is priority over that.”
On Monday at the meeting he said they would be against it being near any school.
At a Jan. 17 City Council meeting, Vaughn updated officials on the shelter, currently on Adelphi Street, and provided data on the people using the shelter during Code Blue — the state mandated requirement that provides homeless people with a place to go at night when the temperature drops below 32 degrees.
During that meeting, Vaughn said 150 people had stayed at least once at the shelter. Of the 150, Vaughn indicated the following:
- 43% used some sort of substance, such as alcohol
“It does not mean that they’re addicts,” Vaughn pointed out.
- 46% were disabled or seniors
- 17% were actively working
- Around 8% were veterans
- Only seven of the 150 people had criminal charges more significant than a trespassing, open container or appearance ticket.
Brian Crowe, who has a daughter at the school, originally said he is nervous about the shelter, but on Monday night went further saying, “I’m sickened, I’m scared, I’m more than just nervous, I’m disgusted by the mayor’s choice.”
He said people who are homeless have already been loitering around the schools. He was also upset city officials didn’t reach out to parents.
“The school, you know, it’s a part of the community, so why weren’t we involved?” he said. “Where did this come from? This cannot be the best location.”
Zacharewicz said that hiring an attorney and fighting the move in court is not off the table.
“We want safety for our kids,” he said.
The group has hired Oscar Schreiber, who spent three decades as a public defender in Saratoga County, to provide legal advice on the issue.
“This was rushed through the City Council with no input from the parents here, no input from the school and no input in the community,” he said during the meeting.
Another parent at the meeting asked if this could be reversed.
“Anything can be reversed,” Schreiber said.
He also said it looks like the parents have no support from the diocese, noting he called the attorney for the diocese and has not received a call back.
He also said more security cameras will be installed at the school and more security guards will be hired as well, although he wouldn’t comment on how many.
“There’s still something out there that can happen, there’s still a hazard,” he said.
Zacharewicz said there’s also some fear that if the shelter happens, then parents will decide to take their children out of the school or choose not to enroll them there.
During the meeting Saratoga Central Catholic sophomore Rebecca Schnefel shared an experience encountering someone who was homeless downtown when she was in eighth grade. She said the person yelled sexually explicit comments at her.
“I’m still terrified to this day to go downtown with a few of my girlfriends just to hang out,” she said.
Joseph Schraffer said he will not be buying anything from Stewart’s Shops anymore. The Dake family, which owns Stewart’s, donated $3 million to help build the addition on the YMCA for the senior center.
Following the meeting attendees walked down to the property line that will be abutting the shelter.
There will be a solidarity walk for student safety on Friday between 2 and 2:30 p.m., and then every Friday thereafter, according to a handout provided at the meeting.
Parents and community members are also expected to show up wearing purple at the City Council’s Feb. 7 meeting.
Organizer Sara Nucera said parents should email the school and include Bishop Edward Scharfenberger, the current leader of the Albany Diocese, asking for their payments for enrollment back until they decide to do something.
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