Next week, surveyors with Shelters of Saratoga will hit the streets with a goal of getting the names of every homeless person in the city.
They’ll also ask those individuals questions to determine their needs and to find out who among them is the most vulnerable — all in five days.
It may sound ambitious, but the organization’s executive director, Michael Finocchi, said he's confident those tasked with creating a registry of the city’s homeless will have success.
“My outreach coordinator is awesome,” he said, referring to Deanna Hensley, who works with the city’s homeless daily. She sets up in Congress Park, visits people living in encampments across the city, and goes to the motels where many are housed by the Department of Social Services to deliver supplies. “She’s got such a rapport with the homeless, they tell her anything she wants.”
Finocchi described the effort, called Registry Week, as “another step in the process of hopefully getting this community at functional zero and ending homelessness.” The program, offered by Community Solutions of New York City, has been used in 186 communities in the United States and in Canada, Australia and Europe as well.
“We're actually quite fortunate to have them take us on as a client because they usually deal with much larger cities than Saratoga,” Finocchi said. “I know they’ve done this project in Denver.”
Finocchi introduced the program at a forum on fighting homelessness this week at the Saratoga Springs City Center, during which he told a crowd of about 75 citizens that the city has 51 people living in encampments -- a tally provided by his outreach coordinator.
“A lot of times you can’t see them because they’re out by the train station, or they’re in the wooded areas by Skidmore, but they’re out there,” he said.
Paula Tancredi Penman, who is coordinating Registry Week, said the program uses what is called a Vulnerability Index — Service Prioritization Decision Assistance Tool to screen for health and and social conditions and identify those who are “most likely to die on the streets.”
“It helps the communities identify the most vulnerable — who needs housing right now,” she said.
She said six surveyors will be walking the streets from 7:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Friday, covering key geographical areas and collecting the information. Everyone reserves the right to refuse to be registered, she noted, and no one is forced to answer any question they’re not comfortable with.
“That usually makes it a little more palatable,” she said, adding that the program has had a 10 percent refusal rate in other communities.
Finocchi said the information will help Shelters of Saratoga determine its future direction for fighting homelessness.
“It’s going to produce this by-name list so that agencies have the names of the individuals who are out there, who are street homeless, who have fallen through the cracks,” he said. “And now we’ll better be able to serve them. It takes a lot of guessing out of where they should be referred and the services they need.”
Cheryl Ann Murphy-Parant, director of the city’s Code Blue program that is run by Shelters of Saratoga, spoke at the forum and said the shelter at Soul Saving Station on Henry Street has been open 62 nights this season, compared to a total of 88 last year. That’s due to a combination of a colder winter and Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s executive order requiring homeless to be sheltered when temperatures dip below 32 degrees, she said. All 41 of the shelter’s beds have been filled nearly all of those nights.
In response to questions from residents about the shortage of space at the shelter, Finocchi said the organization is looking for a larger, permanent location.
“We don’t want to have to go through this process of trying to find a place every year, every couple of years. We do need a permanent location,” he said. “So if anybody knows anything, let us know.”
He said the organization went with Soul Saving Station “in the 11th hour” last year when the larger Salvation Army said it could no longer meet Code Blue’s needs after two years of housing the program.
Code Blue was started on an emergency basis in the winter of 2013-2014 at the Church of St. Peter, after homeless woman Nancy Pitts died while sleeping outdoors near downtown.
“We’re just one incident away from a media nightmare,” Finocchi said. “To avoid having that happen again in a city that everybody looks to as so kind, caring and compassionate, we went with Soul Saving Station.”
Mayor Joanne Yepsen noted that when you walk into the city’s Code Blue shelter, everyone there knows each other by name, which is helping the city address homelessness.
“Once you know each other, then you can start talking about problems and making people’s lives better,” she said. “Registry Week is an important step to allow Shelters of Saratoga and Code Blue to take it one step further, and to really put their stake in the ground of eradicating homelessness.”