When extreme weather is in the forecast, homeless people living on the street in Saratoga Springs will now have a place to seek refuge for the night.
Members of the faith community and social service organizations are teaming up to provide a temporary, no-questions-asked shelter when temperatures plummet to 10 degrees or colder. The city’s first Code Blue program will rely on a network of volunteers to alert the homeless and provide them with rides to an old school building at St. Peter’s Church on Broadway, where cots will be set up.
Temperatures are expected to drop into the single digits Tuesday evening, prompting organizers to announce their first Code Blue emergency only a couple hours after discussing the initiative Friday afternoon.
“We’re going to put every effort into making this successful,” said Joanne Yepsen, the city’s mayor-elect, who helped spearhead the effort.
Finding emergency respite for the homeless became a priority after the death of 54-year-old Nancy Pitts last week. Pitts, who had been homeless for more than a year, was found dead on the loading dock behind the Saratoga Springs Senior Center after overnight temperatures dropped into the low teens.
Though Pitts’ official cause of death is pending, many suspect it was the result of exposure to the elements. Joy King, who knew Pitts since third grade, said her friend was immensely proud even though she was destitute.
“She liked to do things her way,” she recalled, holding a picture of Pitts when she was in eighth grade. “You couldn’t make her do anything she didn’t want to do.”
And that meant she spent her last days on the streets rather than seeking a helping hand from Shelters of Saratoga. King said her friend’s pride coupled with her unwillingness to wade through the intake process kept her out of the city’s only shelter.
“If it was a place that was no questions asked, though, I think she would have gone,” she said.
Organizers are still pulling together the finer details of the Code Blue effort. There is no budget yet, though several private businesses have already pledged money for the program.
Fingerpaint Marketing, a strategic advertising agency, agreed to donate $5,000 toward the effort. The company hopes the donation is enough to spur others to follow suit.
“If Fingerpaint is willing to donate $5,000, I’m confident some of the other philanthropic businesses in our community will step up, as well,” said Ed Mitzen, one of the company’s partners.
The Code Blue program is based on one that has operated in Albany since 2010. Last winter alone, Albany leaders initiated Code Blue warnings on nearly three dozen occasions.
In Saratoga Springs, the effort will rely on several agencies getting the word out to the city’s homeless population. Volunteers already canvassing the area — such as CAPTAIN Youth and Family Services of Clifton Park — will help spread the message when bad weather is in the forecast. City firefighters and police operating in the area will also pass the word, along with volunteers who will provide rides to the Broadway shelter.
The effort also will have help from the Presbyterian-New England Congregational Church, which hosts the Saratoga County Economic Opportunity Council’s soup kitchen. Homeless people coming in for a hot meal will be informed when a Code Blue alert has been issued.
“Word of mouth is the best way to get things out there,” said Anita Paley, the council’s executive director.
The Red Cross will provide cots and other kits, while the extended-stay shelter will bring meals. Peter Whitten, the shelter’s executive director, hopes the effort will spur others to help some of the people living on the streets.
“This will be a catalyst,” he said.