Most people never heard the name Nancy Pitts until this week, five days after her lifeless body was found on the Saratoga Springs Senior Center’s loading dock.
But the 54-year-old homeless woman who had lived on the city’s streets for years was funny and kind, those who had known her for years said at a memorial service held this morning.
“Her favorite thing was feeding the ducks,” said a man who sat with friends at the front of the sanctuary and identified himself as Pitts’ companion for the last 11 months. He held a small bouquet of flowers.
The service at the New England Congregational-Presbyterian Church drew about 70 people, including mayor-elect Joanne Yepsen. A small school picture of Pitts at age 14 was placed on a table at the front of the room, surrounded by flowers and candles.
Yepsen has called a meeting for Fridayafternoon to discuss the immediate creation of a Code Blue program, which would give the homeless in the city a way to take shelter, with no pre-requirements, on nights when temperatures drop too far below freezing or a major storm strikes the region.
The temperature dropped close to single-digits last Wednesday night, the night Pitts and her companion took shelter on the senior center loading deck.
Her death remains under investigation, but is believed to be due to exposure. Police didn’t say anything about it until Monday, five days after the body was found by arriving center staff.
Pitts’ death has tragically highlighted the plight of Saratoga Springs’ homeless population. The memorial service included calls for action to improve their lot, especially during the cold months.
“It makes me sad she died the way she did, and it made me angry,” said Charles Howe, known on the street as “Sleepy,” the street outreach coordinator for the CAPTAIN social services organization.
Saratoga Springs only has one privately operated homeless shelter, and it requires people it takes in to be sober and committed to changing their lives — commitments Pitts couldn’t, or wouldn’t, make.
“That looks great on paper, but in reality it caused a woman to freeze to death in this town,” Howe told the gathering to applause. “We can do better.”
“I’m mad,” said Pitts’ step-brother, Karl Degrasse of Saratoga Springs. “It seems like someone should have done something for her.”
Later, however, he acknowledged she rejected offers of help through the family.
Pitts, who was once married and had two grown children, grew up on White Street, and some of those at the service had known her since childhood.
Joy King said she had known Pitts since third grade, and the two were on the school gymnastics team together, where she would do “goofy things” to break the tension with a strict coach.
Years later, King would see Pitts on the street, and try to help, sometimes forcing money on her. “I know she had illness, but she was always upbeat,” King recalled. “She was really proud. She wouldn’t take money.”
King said some good must come out of the death. “Out of this we are going to get something good, get Code Blue and facilities for people to get out of the cold. … Nancy was a wonderful soul.”
Pitts was a well-known presence at the soup kitchen operated daily at the Congregational-Presbyterian church, which is the largest soup kitchen in the city, offering meals to the needy seven days a week.
“She was very polite, presentable, neat and clean. She always thanked me for everything,” said Gloria LaPorta, who has cooked at the soup kitchen for two decades.
Pitts at one time came for a meal nearly every day, but recently she was coming in two or three times a week, LaPorta said. She believes Pitts also was hospitalized a few weeks ago.
Pitts and her companion would come in together. “They were always getting bread to feed the ducks,” said a kitchen volunteer who didn’t want to give her name.
The Rev. Coqui Conkey, the church’s interim pastor, read several Bible passages about God’s compassion and the welcome received in Heaven. She said Pitts’ death is a call to action.
“It is hard when someone who is unsheltered, as Nancy was, passes away because not enough has been done,” Conkey said. “It is a kick in the pants for our community to do better.”
Yepsen plans a 4 p.m. press conference fro Friday to talk about a Code Blue program, along the lines of what Albany has had for several years.