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Saratoga shelter working to stay open more

Saratoga shelter working to stay open more

Cheryl Murphy-Parant is checking the weather forecast on her phone or computer all the time.
Saratoga shelter working to stay open more
Cots await occupants Tuesday at the Code Blue Saratoga shelter in Saratoga Springs.

Cheryl Murphy-Parant is checking the weather forecast on her phone or computer all the time.

“The hardest part of my job is watching the weather,” she said wryly.

That’s because as the volunteer director of Code Blue Saratoga, she wants to anticipate when the emergency overnight shelter for the homeless at the Salvation Army building on Woodlawn Avenue will need to be open.

This past weekend, the shelter stayed open around the clock because of the frigid temperatures, and it expects be open overnight at least through Friday morning.

“I try to call it 48 hours in advance, just for the sake of the volunteers,” Murphy-Parant said Tuesday, as the United Way of the Greater Capital Region announced an $8,000 donation to kick off a $32,000 fundraising drive.

It takes a couple of dozen volunteers to staff Code Blue on nights when the shelter is open, but even though staffing doesn’t cost anything and the food for dinner is usually donated, it still costs about $90 per night just to keep the lights on and the building heated.

“And that’s just for a fraction of a day,” said Michael Finocchi, executive director of the Shelters of Saratoga, the homeless shelter program that has managed Code Blue since last winter.

He’s hoping the $32,000, once raised, can provide the wherewithal to open a 24⁄7 drop-in center for the homeless, which he said could help get more of the homeless into counseling, housing and a job. “The more you can get people off the street, the more you can let them know about the services available,” he said.

In the winter of 2014-15, Finocchi said 14 people who came through Code Blue were able to settle afterward in the Shelters of Saratoga shelter, which, unlike Code Blue, requires residents to follow rules about being clean and sober, obtaining counseling, and seeking a job and long-term housing.

Although there are few formal rules at Code Blue, Finocchi said it has few problems between residents. “The place basically polices itself,” he said. “Nobody wants to lose the privilege and be sleeping on the street.”

The United Way funding announcement came the same day that state Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli released an audit critical of the conditions in many shelters — most in the New York City area — and faulting the state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance for its oversight of shelters.

“Escaping homelessness requires opportunity and support. New York’s most vulnerable residents deserve far better than the unacceptable conditions found in these shelters,” DiNapoli said.

Finocchi said he expects the audit to lead to new state inspections, probably starting in the larger cities, then smaller shelters like those in Saratoga Springs.

“They’re making sure that it’s clean and run financially soundly, and I would welcome that [inspection],” Finocchi said.

United Way also gives shelter funding to St. Joseph’s House in Troy and the Interfaith Partnership for the Homeless in Albany, said Meredith M. Chimento, United Way vice president of community impact.

For Code Blue Saratoga, United Way has established a website, www.unitedtoconquer.org, where the public and businesses may contribute to the fundraising campaign.

“We’ve decided to try to make the mayor’s vision of a full-time everyday shelter possible,” said Brian Hassett, president and CEO of the United Way of the Greater Capital Region.

Code Blue Saratoga is in its third winter, having started after homeless woman Nancy Pitts died outdoors in late 2013. Joanne Yepsen, mayor-elect at the time and now mayor, helped launch the shelter program and has remained a supporter.

Without the shelter and the cooperation of Salvation Army Maj. Les Bussey through this past weekend’s sub-zero weather, Yepsen said Tuesday, “People probably would have died.”

The shelter is open when temperatures drop below 20 degrees or precipitation is forecast, but Finocchi hopes by next winter to be able to comply with Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s executive order in early January to provide housing every night the temperature falls below freezing.

Code Blue Saratoga does not receive any public funding.

While the winter began as mild, Murphy-Parant said Code Blue has been open the majority of nights in January and February.

Each night it’s open, volunteers are needed for serving dinner and the breakfast provided by the Salvation Army, plus there are two 31⁄2-hour shifts through the night. “We have a good core of people, but we can always use more volunteers,” Murphy-Parant said.

People interested in volunteering can learn how and sign up at www.codebluesaratoga.org.

While Code Blue hosted 20 to 30 people over the weekend, the Schenectady City Mission took in more than 100 men, women and children, even using cots in the hall, said mission Executive Director Michael Saccocio. “We have what we call a surge whenever the weather gets really extreme,” he said Tuesday.

Because the shelter already operates around the clock, Saccocio said Cuomo’s executive order hasn’t had a significant impact on its operations — whereas it will affect shelters like Code Blue, whose nights of operation depend on the weather.

Reach Gazette reporter Stephen Williams at 395-3086, [email protected] or @gazettesteve on Twitter.

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