The city’s Code Blue shelter program for the homeless is looking for a new home after the Salvation Army said it won’t host the program this coming winter.
The social services organization said it needs to return to its core mission of aiding in emergencies, after hosting Code Blue at its its Woodlawn Avenue building for more than 80 nights each of the last two winters.
“It was a heart-wrenching decision,” said Salvation Army Major Roger Duperree. “Our local advisory board for two or three months has agonized over it.”
But, he said, the Code Blue shelter operated by Shelters of Saratoga was crowding other Salvation Army programs.
“It takes a toll on our facility,” Duperree said. “It was taking up more and more time and space, and we couldn’t operate our programs in the way we feel they should be operated.”
Code Blue’s backers said they expect to find a new facility for the program, which provides emergency shelter for the homeless when temperatures drop below freezing, no questions asked.
“I’m confident we will find a place,” said Michael Finocchi, executive director of Shelters of Saratoga. “That’s the thing about this community … Everyone comes to the table … Someone will step up.”
Late Tuesday, the organization issued a general call to its supporters for assistance in finding a new site.
The demands of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s January executive order requiring that the homeless be housed when temperatures drop below freezing was another factor, Salvation Army officials said. Before that, Code Blue was only in effect when temperatures dropped below 20 degrees or a storm was coming.
Code Blue was started on an emergency basis in the winter of 2013-2014, after homeless woman Nancy Pitts died while sleeping outdoors near downtown.
Code Blue’s development has coincided with a rising awareness of the homeless on Saratoga’s streets with some business owners concerned about the impact of their presence on the tourist-oriented city’s image. There has also been an increase in panhandling, though some city officials believe not all of those people are actually homeless.
In its first winter, the shelter was housed at the former St. Peter’s School, but in 2014-15 and this past winter it moved to the Salvation Army building, which had a large room for cots, showers and a central kitchen. It averaged 34 people on the nights it was open this winter, and 36 people the winter before, Finocchi said.
The program is operated by Shelters of Saratoga, which also runs a shelter that requires homeless residents to remain alcohol- and drug-free, and make efforts to improve their lives.
“Ultimately, we’d like [Code Blue] to have its own building, maybe combined with a drop-in center,” Finocchi said.
He expressed gratitude to the Salvation Army, as did Mayor Joanne Yepsen, who was involved in helping found Code Blue.
Yepsen said she was informed Tuesday morning of the change.
“Those of us intimately involved with Code Blue never expected the Salvation Army location to be a permanent solution and we welcome the chance to reassess the program’s needs so we can find a long-term solution that will ideally include a drop-in center,” Yepsen said in a statement.
“It is our hope that our citizens will realize that homelessness is an issue which is not going to go away in our community, regardless of the location of our programming,” said Amy Giplin, chairwoman of the Code Blue Steering Committee.
A small group of Code Blue volunteers attended an announcement at the Salvation Army building to say they are unhappy with the decision.
“We remain committed to the homeless population of Saratoga, and I am concerned they’re not going to do it,” said volunteer Patty Riggi of Saratoga Springs. “I’m very disappointed, and I feel they are going against what their mission is.”
Duperree said the Salvation Army wants to remain involved in addressing the needs of the homeless. “We’re hoping to remain involved in the steering committee and we will help in any way that we can,” he said.
But he said the organization needs to return to its core mission of providing emergency assistance to people on an individual basis.
Reach Gazette reporter Stephen Williams at 395-3086, [email protected] or @gazettesteve on Twitter.