Memories of a life on the street are still painfully fresh for Ron Borges, especially on days when the temperature dips into the single digits.
The 55-year-old Schenectady man recalls finding shelter in the city’s stock of abandoned and derelict buildings or anywhere he could shield himself from the elements. He remembers the cold chilling him to his core and the moisture from snow soaking him to the bone.
A messy divorce started him on a path of self-destruction that spiraled quickly into unemployment and homelessness. He was drinking heavily at the time and slipping precariously closer to the edge of utter ruin — a place where he could feel his life slipping away.
“I was freezing to death out there,” he reflected Tuesday. “I thought I was going to die.
Borges was among the hundreds of homeless subsisting in Schenectady when a deep freeze struck in February
2010. Temperatures were dipping below zero and he could no longer find a way to keep warm, so he came to the City Mission of Schenectady to warm up for a night.
A warm shower and hot food helped Borges remember a time before he was struggling to survive, and the outreach of the mission workers helped give him hope for the future.
“I saw a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel,” said Borges, who now serves as a shift leader at the mission.
Now, Borges is hoping the latest prolonged cold snap will help some of the city’s homeless follow a similar path toward turning over a new leaf. Like many other shelters around the Capital Region, the mission is bracing for a rush of people seeking refuge from the cold as temperatures struggle to get into double-digits this week.
At the mission, nearly all 85 beds were filled as the mercury hovered around 14 degrees Tuesday afternoon. Workers laid out mats in some of the shelter’s common areas in anticipation of an overflow.
“We’ll probably have a full house,” Borges said. “When the weather gets like this, we fill up to capacity.”
The Capital City Rescue Mission in Albany was also nearing capacity, with bitter cold and single-digit evening temperatures in the forecast for the rest of the week. The South Pearl Street shelter housed 208 people on Monday evening and had all of its beds filled.
“With temperatures falling in the single-digits and the accompanying icy winds, it becomes a life-or-death situation for those out on the streets,” said Perry Jones, Capital City’s executive director.
Smaller shelters operating in Saratoga Springs and Amsterdam are almost always at capacity, even when the weather isn’t frigid. The small, eight-bedroom shelter opened by the Interfaith Partnership for the Homeless last fall on East Main Street in Amsterdam has been at capacity for much of the winter, said Executive Director Janine Robataille.
Even with shelters at capacity, the homeless are never turned away. County social service departments will typically arrange for indigent people seeking shelter to be housed in other shelters or area motels. But Robataille and other advocates for the homeless fear the fate of those who don’t seek adequate shelter when temperatures drop below zero. She said some misguidedly fear they’ll be institutionalized or forced into programs if they utilize the shelters.
“That is a struggle,” she said, “and it makes me nervous.”
Organizations like the Albany-based Homeless Action Committee attempt to bridge the gap between the population on the streets and those who seek care at shelters, especially when it gets colder. Each day, committee members drive around Albany, searching for the homeless who don’t turn up at the shelters so they can offer them blankets or food.
“This is definitely the type of weather where people freeze to death,” said Lisanne Forgione, an outreach program supervisor with the committee.
Others are apparently seeking shelter in a much more confining place: area jails. On Friday, Troy police said Jamaine McPeace, a 30-year-old homeless man living in the city, smashed a plate glass window at the Rensselaer County Clerk’s office on Third Street. When witnesses alerted authorities and police arrived, McPeace continued his path of destruction by smashing out the back window of a vehicle with a trash can lid.
After city police took him into custody without incident, he allegedly told them he was tired of being cold and wanted to go to jail for the year, so he could be warm. McPeace was charged with two counts of felony criminal mischief.
Troy Police Capt. John Clooney said the situation is unique and unfortunate.
“We’re hearing from shelters beds are at a premium,” he said. “It’s certainly possible that those in need are finding that rooms are not available.”