Cloaked in a hooded winter coat, the man pushed a small shopping cart of his belongings across Hamilton Street and slowly made his way toward the St. Peter’s auxiliary building on Christmas Eve.
At the door, amid temperatures dipping into the low 20s, he paused at a sign reading succinctly, “Code Blue shelter entrance.” Within moments, a volunteer was opening the door for him and helping to lift his cart up a short flight of steps toward the former school’s multipurpose room.
The only intake point was manned by a volunteer with a small composition book. The only questions asked were ones to determine the man’s immediate needs.
Only volunteers and the city’s homeless population were welcomed at the temporary shelter with about a dozen cots. All others were asked to leave the premises so as to not upset any trust being forged between them during the city’s first Code Blue initiative.
“We want to maintain their privacy and their trust,” said Sharah Yaddaw, a street outreach coordinator working with CAPTAIN Youth and Family Services, one of the many organizations helping the initiative. “Basically, this is not about us. This is about the people who need a safe place to stay.”
With temperatures expected to dip down to 10 degrees, volunteers pledged to canvass the city in search of the homeless with the hope of coaxing them into a warm place for the evening. Though the overnight low wouldn’t be nearly as bone-chilling as a cold snap that struck the city last week, a modest breeze was enough to make it feel sub-zero, according to the National Weather Service in Albany.
Volunteers posted signs around the city urging the homeless to seek shelter at St. Peter’s. They even used chalk to scroll a notice on the sidewalk in the middle of Broadway downtown.
Various community organizations throughout the city and Saratoga County banded together to launch the initiative, which is largely based on one that had been operating in Albany since 2010. The emergency shelter arrangement with St. Peter’s is triggered when temperatures are expected to drop down to 10 degrees or a foot of snow is in the forecast.
“Together with the local multi-faith community and nonprofit partners, we have successfully opened our first Code Blue night in Saratoga Springs,” said Joanne Yepsen, the city’s mayor-elect and one of the driving forces behind the initiative. “I want to thank the overwhelming support from former homeless individuals and generous donors in the community, who are all determined to make this a success.”
The emergency initiative was spurred in part by the death of 54-year-old Nancy Pitts earlier this month. Pitts, who struggled with homelessness for years, was found dead on the exposed back loading dock of the Saratoga Springs Senior Center the morning after overnight temperatures dropped into the low teens.
An investigation into Pitts’ death is continuing and toxicology is pending, but police don’t suspect foul play.
Some among the city’s homeless population seek refuge near the senior center, where they are tolerated provided they leave when it opens in the morning. Others seek wooded areas on the outskirts of the city.
The city has 33 beds available at the Shelters of Saratoga, but they’re dedicated for those among the homeless committed to changing their lifestyle. The shelter’s intake process is extensive and residents are expected to stay sober through the duration of their stay, which can range upward of two months.
Some believe the city’s lack of a no-questions-asked shelter for temporary stays is a glaring problem that needs addressing. City leaders hope the swift creation of a Code Blue program is a measure that can at least provide a brief respite during the most brutal days of the winter months.
The shelter at St. Peter’s is expected to close today, once temperatures rise back into the 20s. But that could change with the Arctic air mass now forming over Canada.
“There will be some potential for some very cold weather next week,” said Kevin Lipton, a meteorologist with the weather service.