SARATOGA SPRINGS — Elise H. woke up early each morning last summer before work, so she would have time to get to the Salvation Army and shower before heading to Saratoga Race Course.
The homeless Clifton Park native has been sleeping in woods outside the city on and off for at least two years. She learned early on to hide details about where she lives.
"People eventually figured it out," she said. "It's hard to hide it, but not impossible.
"It's hard to dig yourself out of a hole making $10 an hour," she added.
Though Elise sleeps in a tent by herself, other homeless people are living in camps less than 100 yards from her tent.
On Monday, she and two others eagerly awaited a delivery of supplies by Shelters of Saratoga volunteers.
"I don't know where I'd be without them," Elise said of the organization.
Many of the city's homeless, like Elise, have been sleeping outside since the Shelters of Saratoga's Code Blue shelter — a refuge from wintry weather — closed for the season.
Outreach Coordinator Erica Mason drives around the city every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, stopping at nearly a dozen hotels and at least three homeless encampments to provide help to those living rough.
On Monday, Mason's van carried cartons of eggs, cans of food, bags of socks, shirts and underwear and other supplies.
Shelters of Saratoga hosts two drop-in days a week — four hours each — to give those who are homeless an opportunity to shower, eat and do laundry.
While Elise said more services are available for the homeless in cities like Schenectady, she prefers Saratoga Springs.
"I have more independence up here, and it's nicer," she said.
'Mostly, nobody cares'
Mindy lives in an encampment with her husband, Mike, a U.S. Army veteran, and four others.
After becoming homeless three years ago -- a result of losing her job -- Mindy chose to stay in Saratoga Springs because her kids live nearby.
"Saratoga County is the worst county to live in because there are no services," she said. "Every once in a while, a church steps in to help, but mostly nobody cares."
(The Saratoga County Department of Social Services addresses unmet financial and social needs for county residents, including providing Supplemental Security Income (SSI) assistance.)
Mindy said that, while she's grateful to Mason for delivering supplies on a weekly basis, living in the woods is anything but glamorous.
"No one has any idea what it's like to live out here," she said. "We have to worry about animals eating our food and random people trying to hurt us. Every night I go to sleep scared that I won't wake up the next morning."
Mindy said the biggest challenge to living in the Spa City is the lack of affordable housing.
"There aren't a lot of options here for affordable housing compared to other cities," she said. "It's so difficult up here."
In June 2016, the city implemented an ordinance making it illegal for people to lie on, sit on, or block a city sidewalk. Residents who attended public hearings before the ordinance was adopted felt it targeted the city's homeless population.
Mayor Meg Kelly said there are a lot of affordable housing options coming online soon in the city, including “Intrada,” a 158-unit project planned for 19 undeveloped acres on West Avenue.
"There are three other projects on the docket (in addition to Intrada)," she said. "We have a lot coming down the pike."
Kelly said she will meet soon with other city officials, including Chief of Police Gregory Veitch and Shelters of Saratoga Executive Director Michael Finocchi to address homelessness in the city.
"We have homeless in Saratoga Springs, and we've always had them," she said. "The problem is that they're going to be displaced from encampments because of development. We're hoping to find some solutions and come up with a plan on how to move forward."
Aside from supplying the homeless with needed items, Mason also helps many get jobs, food stamps, insurance and a permanent place to live.
The last one, however, proves to be the toughest for Mason, who has been employed with Shelters of Saratoga since January.
"Many homeless people come here because they think it's a rich city, so there will be more opportunities when there are actually less," she said.
Mason added it's especially hard to find housing for those with criminal histories.
Some live in hotels, which Mason said they either pay for themselves or by the Department of Social Services.
In early 2017, Shelters of Saratoga conducted "Registry Week," with a goal of recording the names of every homeless person in the city.
Finocchi said there approximately 50 homeless living in tents around the city, while another 33 live at Shelters of Saratoga.
'I want to dictate how I'm going to live my life'
Edward Hamil, who lives in an encampment with five other men, helps promote Shelters of Saratoga's services.
He said he hopes the city opens a year-round shelter, as the Code Blue shelter only operates in accordance with state law -- when temperatures in the city dip below 32 degrees.
"It can lead to more people using services," he said of people taking advantage of the Code Blue shelter. "People have to be self-sufficient, and oftentimes they think it supposed to be handed to them."
On April 19, the city Planning Board unanimously granted Shelters of Saratoga a special use permit and approved the site plan for a new Code Blue shelter next to its Walworth Street headquarters.
But a lawsuit, filed by 22 neighbors surrounding the site, challenged the Planning Board’s approval of the project and the Zoning Board’s June dismissal of the neighbors' appeal of the approval.
Finocchi said that, once a judge rules on the lawsuit, Shelters of Saratoga will determine the next steps.
With the Code Blue Shelter being closed for the season, Hamil said his objective is to find out what people need. The biggest needs at the moment include tick-removal kits, wet wipes, sunscreen, rain coats and other items to get through the warmer months.
On Monday, Hamil was in search of socks, and walked away from Mason's van with a bag full of them, along with underwear, T-shirts, lotion and an umbrella.
"I greatly appreciate it," he said of the donated items. "I get what I need, not what I want."
Hamil said that, while he promotes the Code Blue shelter to others, he chooses not to take advantage of it during the winter months, due to the rules, which include a curfew.
"I have plenty of comforters and a sleeping bag; the only thing I'm worried about is a tree falling on my tent," he said. "I want to dictate how I'm going to live my life. I want to live it on my own terms."
Shelters of Saratoga's street outreach program is in need of bug repellent with DEET, mini lint rollers, canned food with pop tops, men's sneakers in sizes 5-11, women's sneakers in sizes 6-9, T-shirts, sunscreen, snack food, camping gear, including tents, tarps, sleeping bags and cooking appliances, wet wipes, produce that doesn't spoil easily, and rain gear.
Donations can be dropped off at Shelters of Saratoga, 14 Walworth St., and should be marked "street outreach."
For more information on donations, email Erica Mason at [email protected]