With the worst of winter on the horizon, Saratoga Springs officials are moving swiftly to ensure that homeless people living on the street have temporary options to seek respite from the bitter cold.
Mayor-elect Joanne Yepsen is meeting with a group of community and faith-based organizations Friday to discuss creating at least one temporary shelter in the city where the homeless can escape extreme weather conditions, such as a massive snowstorm or temperatures dipping below the teens. She said a no-questions-asked emergency facility would give the homeless at least an option to escape weather that can sometimes prove fatal.
“We need to make provisions for people to stay for a night or two to get out of the cold,” Yepsen said Tuesday. “I want to get the unsheltered homeless people inside on these nights so they’re not experiencing a threat to their lives.”
The effort follows the death of Nancy Pitts, a 54-year-old homeless woman who was found dead last week taking shelter overnight near a covered loading area in the rear of the Saratoga Springs Senior Center on Williams Street. Though an exact cause of her death is still being investigated, the temperature was in the low teens the morning she was found. An impromptu service for Pitts is slated for this morning at the Presbyterian-New England Congregational Church — the place where she sometimes stopped for a meal.
Coqui Conkey, the congregation’s minister, said Pitts’ death has resonated through the city’s homeless population.
“People are really affected by Nancy’s death,” she said. “It’s really to honor a life that was lived the best it could be and to recognize the dignity of everyone.”
Pitts was cremated by Compassionate Funeral Care of Saratoga on Wednesday and her ashes were turned over to a family member. She is survived by a son and daughter.
Rolland Hoag, the facility’s funeral director, said family members told him they tried to reach out to her while she was on the street, but to no avail. He said they described her as someone with a degree of pride that prevented her from accepting charity.
“She never wanted to take handouts,” he said.
Pitts’ death prompted some leaders to call for the creation of an emergency network to offer temporary assistance to the homeless. Though Shelters of Saratoga provides long-term assistance, residency there involves a detailed intake process and a pledge to refrain from drugs or alcohol — elements that sometimes deter homeless from seeking help even when conditions outdoors are dire.
The program now being considered would closely resemble Code Blue, an emergency initiative launched in Albany after the death of 31-year-old Darrell Glass in 2007. Glass, who was homeless, froze to death on a sidewalk after being turned away from a shelter because he was drunk.
The partnership between police, fire officials and social service agencies first went into effect in 2010. The effort opens extra spots at shelters and provides free transportation to the homeless when temperatures drop below 10 degrees or more than a foot of snow is forecast.
Yepsen, who will be sworn in as mayor on New Year’s Day, said a similar initiative can work in Saratoga Springs. She believes the majority of the city’s street homeless will make use of a temporary shelter, provided they’re permitted to drop in on particularly bad nights.
“This is really about getting people off the streets with no strings attached,” she said. “That’s what we’re hoping will bring people to us.”
There’s also an increased will to change the system in Saratoga Springs. Though city leaders have engaged in ongoing discussions about the local homeless population, Pitts’ death has galvanized support for greater precautions before the next cold snap strikes.
“There’s an understanding that we’re in the midst of a period of time that creates a sense of urgency,” said Peter Whitten, executive director of the city shelter. “Nobody wants to drag their feet on this. No one wants to be in the situation where we are today.”