For every year Amber Boone has spent as captain of the Salvation Army post in Saratoga Springs, she’s seen at least one of the city’s homeless residents die from exposure to the elements.
The first two went largely unreported and unnoticed in the community, she recalled. The body of one homeless man who died during the winter in 2013 was found callously discarded in a garbage bin.
“Each year, we’ve had someone pass away,” she said.
Now, she and other volunteers are prepared to offer an alternative at the city’s new Code Blue shelter. Starting Nov. 15, the Salvation Army center on Woodlawn Avenue will provide a free, no-questions-asked space for the city’s homeless population to sleep for the night whenever the mercury dips below 20 degrees.
The building’s central meeting room will provide cots and showers, along with breakfast in the morning. In addition, the Salvation Army has a clothing bank that can help outfit those in need.
“This is about building community,” Mayor Joanne Yepsen said in announcing the new home for Code Blue, “and building community means everyone in the city is part of that community.”
The Code Blue initiative was created following the death of 54-year-old Nancy Pitts on Dec. 12, 2013. 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.
Her death struck a chord, in part because she was found in close proximity to downtown, but also because it highlighted the gap between the city’s residence shelter and the streets.
Those seeking placement at Shelters of Saratoga — the city’s only overnight shelter — must adhere to a sober living policy. Also, the 33-bed Walworth Street facility is designed for extended stays, not sudden arrivals during a crisis.
The need spurred immediate action by city leaders and within days, the Code Blue initiative was launched. On Christmas Eve, the first Code Blue shelter was opened at the St. Peter’s auxiliary building on Hamilton Street.
Code Blue was initially declared only when temperatures fell to 10 degrees or lower, but organizers raised the threshold to 20 degrees later in the winter.
The city logged 58 Code Blue days last winter. The 22-bed shelter hosted about dozen people on most nights, but saw upward of 30 visitors on some occasions.
“We knew there was a need for more [beds],” said Joy King, a friend of Pitts who helped establish the initiative.
The Salvation Army building will provide more space and amenities. It will also allow visitors to stay later in the morning than St. Peter’s, which needed them to leave by 6 a.m.
The effort will also have a decent sum of money to start the year. The Saratoga Foundation, a community-based organization that supports local nonprofit groups, contributed $10,000 toward Code Blue’s operation this winter.
The shelter’s aim is to build trust among the city’s homeless population and coordinate with organizations like Shelters of Saratoga to help some transition into more permanent housing. Such was the case for Darlene, a 30-year-old woman who became homeless as a result of domestic violence.
Originally from Albany County, she found herself at the Code Blue shelter last winter after shuttling from one warm space to the next. Darlene, who asked that her last name not be used, said volunteers at the shelter helped convince her to seek placement at Shelters of Saratoga — an effort that came to fruition after some persistence.
After about a week on a cot at Code Blue and 17 days at the shelter, Darlene was able to find a home at the Saratoga Springs Housing Authority’s Stonequist Apartments. On Thursday, she proudly held aloft her keys as symbol of all the help she received from her Code Blue experience.
“They helped me become part of a community,” she said. “They helped me find a safe spot.”