WEIGHING IN – Last week, dozens of Saratoga Central Catholic School parents expressed outrage over plans to put a homeless shelter on a property neighboring their school at 247 Broadway.
An online petition with more than 1,500 signatures called the now-halted plans at 5 Williams St., which shares more than 200 feet of property line with the school in Saratoga Springs, “willfully blind to any issues or risks that a homeless individual could pose to the shelter and the school children next door.”
Parents speaking up at last week’s public meeting wanted to ensure their kids were protected and that the threats they feared the shelter posed were being taken seriously.
How ironic, then, that some parents seem to have been making threats of their own.
On Sunday, Shelters of Saratoga Executive Director Duane Vaughn emailed members of the Saratoga Springs City Council to say that he, his family and the organization’s board president had faced physical threats of violence as a result of the shelter discussion. “This has completely shaken our home. My wife considered going to a family member or a hotel,” Vaughn wrote Sunday. “The threats were unbearable. We had days of no sleep and constantly looking over our shoulders.”
Of course, the irony of this controversy has been rich from the start. After all, it features the community of a Catholic school opposing a facility that would actualize the very principles the faith claims to hold dear, such as respecting others and caring for the poor.
In an image that encapsulates the hypocrisy, more than two dozen parents locked arms along the property line to demonstrate that they could be the fence preventing the unhoused from becoming the school’s neighbor.
A statement from Albany Diocese Superintendent of Schools Giovanni Virgiglio directly acknowledged the paradox.
“The safety and well-being of our students and SCC community guides our decision-making and that is clearly our intention with this situation,” the statement reads. “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 irony here is so troubling because it is a maximal display of NIMBYism, in which we have people professing to support something in the abstract only to oppose specific proposals that butt up against their lives. Not-in-my-backyard mantras hold up much progress in this country, from the people who say they want to help the impoverished only to oppose the affordable housing units in their neighborhood, to the people who say they support green energy only to oppose wind farms on their road.
NIMBYism has plagued plans to develop a much-needed homeless shelter in Saratoga Springs at least since 2017. The 5 Williams St. location is now the third shelter location in that timespan to be doomed after facing backlash from neighbors, Gazette reporter Shenandoah Briere is reporting.
With 5 Williams St., some level of concern is warranted. The plan to put a shelter there, a plan currently on pause but not necessarily dead, took shape last October when Saratoga Springs Mayor Ron Kim announced plans to move the senior center, which had been at the 5 Williams St. building, to the Saratoga Springs YMCA on West Avenue. That created an opportunity to house a year-round shelter and resource navigation center on Williams Street.
The facility would have been a low-barrier shelter, meaning people could stay there regardless of sobriety and criminal background.
For the parents of the middle and high school students who attend Saratoga Central Catholic, I can understand the worry. As a father of two, I’d likely have some trepidation.
But those fears are overblown.
For starters, the fears stereotype unhoused individuals. Last week, I requested Saratoga Springs Police Department data about the rate at which unhoused community members commit crimes. The request hasn’t yet been returned, but the city’s Commissioner of Public Safety James Montagnino said he doesn’t believe the data will show the records of unhoused people will differ greatly from the general public.
“It’s a very small percentage who have anything more than petty offenses,” Montagnino said of his recollection of unhoused population data he’s seen.
There’s been community concern about a cluster of unhoused people who routinely hang at the Woodlawn garage downtown, and some of that concern is justified as members of the public say they face taunts and harassment that make them fearful and uncomfortable.
But, based on my visits to the garage, those concerns overstate the level of aggression from the people encamped there.
Plus, it’s not like the behavior of people accessing a shelter would go unchecked. Security measures at the 5 Williams St. shelter would include surveillance cameras and a designated city police officer for the school vicinity, Mayor Kim told reporter Briere.
On top of those safety measures, Shelters of Saratoga’s staff are trained to de-escalate conflicts and would be present to keep the peace. In short, the shelter wouldn’t be a drunken street party, as some fear. It would be a place where unhoused members of the community are given a chance to get back on their feet.
Last summer, I met members of the Shelters of Saratoga staff as well as some of the people staying inside the organization’s main site on Walworth Street, where people using the facility stay an average of 54 days.
To be sure, Shelters of Saratoga’s two buildings on Walworth, with a total of 23 beds, aren’t low-barrier sites, so residents have to be sober to stay there. Still, it struck me how much the main building felt like any home, with couches in the living room and a kitchen fridge full of deli meats, leftovers and yogurt.
The people inside were neighbors who either needed some support, or they were the hardworking folks who provide that support. We all seem to agree that such services are needed and that more needs to be done to address homelessness in Saratoga Springs.
Yet too few of us are willing to accept a shelter coming to our neighborhood — to the point where, in this case, a community leader such as the Shelters of Saratoga’s executive director found himself scared for his safety.
Aren’t we all supposed to love thy neighbor as thyself?
Columnist Andrew Waite can be reached at [email protected] and at 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter @UpstateWaite.
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“some parents seem to have been making threats of their own.”
Andrew, how do you know that the threats came from Spa Catholic parents?
Have the threats been reported to the police and subsequently released to the public?
This is quite the accusation, unless you have evidence to justify your statement.