The first real cold snap of the season came the week Anthony George became homeless.
It was mid-November in the Capital Region, and daily lows reached a few degrees below the freezing mark, with a wind chill even lower. On the day he had no place to go — Nov. 15 — George had two hospital gowns, a pair of non-slip hospital socks, sneakers and a coat to his name.
George had lived in an apartment on McClellan Street for 13 years until, he said, another resident in the building pushed him down a flight of stairs, breaking his fibula and ankle. When police came to investigate, they noted several code violations in the suspect’s apartment, George said, and the city ordered the building vacated. Instead of allowing tenants to get their belongings, however, George claimed the landlord instead threw everything out.
Where to go
The following area organizations offer shelter and other services for the homeless:
• Bethesda House, 834 State St., Schenectady, 374-7873
• City Mission of Schenectady, 425 Hamilton St., 346-2275
• The Salvation Army of Schenectady’s Evangeline Booth Miracle Home, 168 Lafayette St., 370-0276 or 370-0277
• Homeless and Travelers Aid Society, 138 Central Ave., Albany, 463-2124
• Capital City Rescue Mission, 259 S. Pearl St., Albany, 462-0459
• Interfaith Partnership for the Homeless, 176 Sheridan Ave., Albany, 434-8021
• Homeless Action Committee, 393 N. Pearl St., Albany, 426-0554
• Shelters of Saratoga, 14 Walworth St., Saratoga Springs, 581-1097
George had options. He could ask his sister — who lived in cramped Section 8 housing and struggled with a heart condition — if he could stay with her. He could ask a buddy — who had just started a new job and was in the midst of taking care of his 88-year-old mother — if he could stay with him.
“It just didn’t seem fair to them,” said George, 59.
So that left him with two options: sleep on the streets or get help from the Schenectady County Department of Social Services.
He chose the latter and was placed at the Stardust Motor Inn on Curry Road in Rotterdam. Two weeks later, he was transferred to the Imperial Motel on the outskirts of the city’s Hamilton Hill neighborhood. He walked in, saw the mold, a sink falling off the wall in the bathroom and a bug crawling across the bed and walked out. He went to the City Mission of Schenectady next and has been there ever since.
“I was very scared,” he recalled. “It was a week before my birthday and a couple weeks before Thanksgiving and right when it got cold out. I had never been in a situation like this before. I never had to depend on anybody before. I always took care of myself. I had never dealt with DSS. It was all so overwhelming.”
George can’t really imagine what his days would be like if he hadn’t ended up at the City Mission. He hopes to find his own place before his stay ends Jan. 2. On a recent day, he was out in the cold for 45 minutes — it was less than a mile’s walk from the Schenectady County Public Library, but he was on crutches — and the cold was unbearable.
For most of us, this is the season for buttoning up our jackets and rushing in and out of the cold. We lament the snow and the time it takes to clean our cars off some mornings. We endure red noses for a coffee run or the spare errand. We wait for our cars to warm up before we get in.
For some, though, this is the season for survival. They either find a place out of the elements or risk death. The Capital Region, for the most part, knows how to take care of its homeless on these days. But there are some people who still risk exposure, either because they are unable to act in their own self interest, have a fierce independent streak or survived a cold night once before and think they can do it again.
On a cold night in Albany, where several hundred homeless people sleep on the streets year-round, help is just a phone call away.
“People know to go to us,” said Liz Hitt, executive director of the Homeless and Travelers Aid Society in Albany. “They know that if they call us, we will be there.”
The organization, which runs the Capital Region’s only 24/7 hotline for the homeless (866-201-7399), serves as the intake center for the county’s 11 homeless shelters and guarantees it will find a safe place for someone to sleep, as long as they call.
But many times, it’s others who call — police, social services workers, a local hospital or a CDTA driver who spots a homeless person taking refuge in a bus shelter.
On “code blue” days, the organization fields nonstop calls at its three offices in Albany County. The county will declare a code blue when the temperature is 10 degrees or lower, including wind chill. During this time, no one can be denied entrance to a shelter, unless for some reason they’re a threat to public safety.
Hitt used to have her own method for dealing with cold nights on the streets. She was homeless for eight months after serving in the Gulf War. She was working two jobs at the time and going to college at night.
“Thankfully I had a little tan Ford Ranger, and I would sleep in that on most nights,” she said. “But on really cold nights, I would use the money I had earned during the day to get a motel room because it’s just too cold to be outside. And that was one thing that kept me homeless for so long. Every now and then, you have to get out of the weather, and sometimes that means paying for a hotel. It took me a long time to save up a nest egg.”
In Albany, the Capital City Rescue Mission on South Pearl Street has been designated an official code blue emergency shelter. And in Schenectady, the City Mission serves as a de facto code blue shelter — no one declares an official code blue in Schenectady County, but they won’t turn anyone away.
“Those are the nights the mats come out,” said City Mission Executive Director Mike Saccocio, “but sometimes it’s a man in a chair with a blanket. It may not be the most comfortable thing in the world, but at least he’s warm.”
The mission is funded solely with contributions from individuals, churches and philanthropic businesses. It provides free clothing — hats, coats, mittens, scarves and more — throughout the winter months to anyone who needs it. Recently, the mission added 11 extra beds to its 65-bed men’s dorm in anticipation of winter. It also has a 37-bed women’s facility.
“Mats are one thing,” said Saccocio, “but we’re blessed to get those 11 additional beds. That’s a big boost for us.”
Three years ago, Perry Jones found more space to shelter the homeless in the winter. He’s executive director of the Capital City Rescue Mission in Albany, which has a 60-bed dorm, as many as 30 “overflow” mats, a day room for people to sit out of the cold and a free, on-site medical clinic that will treat frostbite and other episodic and primary care needs of the poor. St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, at the corner of State and Lodge streets, had long examined ways it could help the mission and in 2011 offered to serve as an auxiliary shelter.
“They have this nice gym that they don’t really use,” said Jones. “For a long time, they weren’t sure. They had to get used to the idea that they would have homeless people sleeping in their church. Finally, they said, ‘it felt like this is what the Lord has wanted us to do all along with this gym.’ ”
On most nights, the Rescue Mission will house about 180 homeless people. On code blue nights, that number can swell to 220.
Still, there are those who don’t come in from the cold. Jones recalled one man who consistently turned down his offers of a stay at the shelter on cold nights.
“He would say, ‘I’ve got a nice pair of gloves, I’ll be OK,’ ” Jones recalled, “but he had a plan. He would get under a bridge or viaduct, set up his cardboard, a lot of it, and make sure he had lots of layers of clothing and a sleeping bag. He had been doing it a long time. I would say to him, ‘Why don’t you just relax for a night and come in anyway?’ But he wouldn’t.”
Other times, it’s addiction that keeps people away from shelter on cold nights. Some shelters will turn a homeless person away if they smell of alcohol. Dry shelters are less common these days, though, said the Rev. Phil Grigsby, executive director of the Schenectady Inner City Ministry.
“The power of addiction is such that a number of people would not come in from the cold if it meant they had to be sober,” he said. “Folks had to make a decision, stop drinking and come in or possibly freeze to death. Let me tell you, people with addiction will do all sorts of things contrary to their self-interest, including freezing to death. Now there are wet shelters, and as long as they’re not bullies or acting out, they can come in.”
A significant portion of the homeless population also has untreated mental illnesses that may prevent them from coming in out of the cold. Grigsby recalled one man he worked with several years ago whose mental illness prevented him from making decisions in his own self-interest.
“He lived in a box behind Trustco Bank downtown,” he said. “This guy would come to Bethesda House periodically, and then after a while, we noticed he was no longer coming. People found him dead in his box. Turns out he had over $100,000 in the bank. He was somebody at General Electric who had a mental breakdown and wound up living in a box. He was a prisoner in his own mind.”
Those who choose to rough it will likely have better luck in Schenectady and Albany: Each city has a large stock of abandoned, vacant buildings. Saratoga Springs doesn’t have this problem but does have a homeless problem.
“We have no true overnight emergency shelter,” said Peter Whitten, executive director of Shelters of Saratoga, a dry, drug-free shelter with 34 beds. “I think there is a need. We know that there are a number of people, we don’t know the exact number, but there are people who don’t have homes here. They camp out in wooded areas. They manage to find some kind of material that they can make into tents or they crawl into places where they can find cover on cold nights.”