SARATOGA SPRINGS — At least two dozen business owners convened on Hattie's back patio Wednesday night to address the issue of homelessness in the city.
Now that the Shelters of Saratoga's Code Blue shelter has closed for the season, the city's homeless population is more evident in the downtown core.
Kendra Yale, owner of Red Wolf on Spring Street, has had people come into her shop who have had negative interactions with the homeless — including witnessing overdoses in the adjacent Congress Park.
"It's upsetting to them," she said. "I try to educate them that we have homeless like any other city."
Yale also said she encourages her patrons to not give money directly to the homeless, but rather to Shelters of Saratoga, which provides and connects the homeless with services such as jobs and housing.
How to convey that message to the city's tourist population became one of the main focuses of the Downtown Business Association's Wednesday meeting.
Members were given the opportunity to ask questions to a panel, which included Saratoga Springs Police Chief Michael Veitch, Shelters of Saratoga Executive Director Mike Finocchi, Mayor Meg Kelly, Commissioner of Public Safety Peter Martin and Wellspring Executive Director Maggie Fronk.
Finocchi said money given to the homeless rarely goes toward housing or food, but rather alcohol or other substances to "fuel their addiction."
"We encourage everyone to send them our way, because they may be eligible for benefits they didn't even know about," he said to attendees. "Getting them through our doors is a start."
Many of the business owners expressed concern about panhandlers in front of their storefronts.
Veitch said while panhandling is not illegal, he encouraged attendees to call the police department if the panhandlers became aggressive.
"Violence with the homeless isn't a serious problem," he said. "It's mainly alcohol and mental health issues.
"Oftentimes, if a business owner asks them to move along, they get better results than we do."
Finocchi said during the busy summer track season that the city tends to see a different kind of panhandler.
"During the summer people come up from other cities and are overly aggressive when panhandling," he said. "They come up to the city on the bus, because they go where the money is."
Finocchi encouraged business owners to call Shelters of Saratoga when faced with a non-threatening situation with a homeless person.
"We know the faces of those we serve," he said.
On Monday, Finocchi said he and another Shelters of Saratoga employee would begin visiting businesses along Broadway to pass along their contact information to business owners.
Paul O'Donnell, owner of Celtic Treasures and a board member of the Downtown Business Association, said the organization invites the police chief to a meeting every year before the summer.
"We do it so the business owners can have their concerns addressed," he said. "We decided to focus on homelessness, because they're on the streets everyday and it's a concern for everyone — shop owners, residents and tourists."
O'Donnell said the meeting was a chance for business owners to meet those who interact and serve with the city's homeless population.
"This gives them a face and a name of the people they'll be sending the homeless to," he said. "We all care and it's important for us to keep in mind that any one of us could become homeless.
"We need to continue to keep each other informed in order to mitigate the problem, and not sweep it under the rug."