A homelessness expert and Saratoga Springs High School alumna on Thursday outlined an approach for Saratoga Springs to reduce and eventually eliminate homelessness in the city.
“It’s not mysterious how to do it, it just takes focus, commitment, a long-term laser-like focus,” said Erin Healy, a lawyer and Brooklyn-based consultant who works with communities combating homelessness.
A large crowd of Saratoga residents turned out for the event, nearly filling Skidmore’s Filene Music Building. Healy outlined the history of homelessness and efforts to house people over the decades before.
She emphasized the importance of focusing on helping people to get into housing, stabilizing their lives so they can address problems with health, substance abuse and other issues, rather than shaming people who are homeless.
“Shame is really not a motivator to make massive change in your life,” Healy said.
Healy explained to the Saratoga crowd the need to balance both short-term help like shelters and overnight winter housing, while also focusing on building long-term supportive housing that can help people establish themselves.
She said many communities get trapped in a cycle of managing homelessness as a symptom of broader problems in the community without solving those problems.
She argued that homeless people are actually far more expensive to government and community agencies than is someone living in supportive housing. Showing a study of a people in Los Angeles’ skid row, she illustrated how the costs associated with the health, emergency, police and other resources devoted to managing homelessness far outstrip the costs of supporting people in long-term housing.
“Once you start to see this kind of reality, it makes a lot more sense to invest in housing,” she said. “I think in every city there is an analogous thing going on.”
In Saratoga Springs, rising housing costs and gentrification have exacerbated homelessness, Healy said.
She highlighted a chart showing the dramatic increase in the number of homeless calls Saratoga Springs police respond to on a regular basis. So far this year, the police have averaged seven homeless calls a day, compared to 4.6 homeless calls per day in 2018, 3.2 calls per day in 2017 and 2.5 calls per day in 2016.
Healy said people don’t actually want to be homeless but often shun housing options because they come with too many restrictions or the people feel they will likely fall out of that housing option in the future. Showing before and after pictures of people who had been stabilized in long-term housing, Healy demonstrated the major changes people can make in their lives if provided stable housing.
“There’s nothing that tells you the story more about what housing can do,” she said. “It’s like a rebirth.”
Bergen County, New Jersey, converted an old La Quinta motel into “one-stop shop” of housing resources open all day and all year that gives people a place to access the services of a shelter, soup kitchen and social services offices without having to find transportation from one place to another.
Karen Gregory, executive director of Shelters of Saratoga, said the organization was working on purchasing and converting a motel to a site of supportive housing for 14 people.
But for now, people who are homeless in Saratoga have to spend the day moving from shelter to soup kitchen, finding places to spend time throughout the day.
“It’s creating a rift in the community because it’s not a pleasant issue to face you every day and a lot of the anger is why can’t we solve this,” Healy said. “And we can.”
When the forum shifted to questions and answers, many of the residents expressed concern that the broader Saratoga community wasn’t committed to solving the homelessness problem. Some of the speakers pointed to the community’s focus on wealth, while others recounted past efforts to construct a Code Blue center that were stymied by resistance within the community.
“We are lacking morals, we are lacking compassion, we are lacking empathy, we are lacking character,” Susan Beebe said of the broader Saratoga community.
But Healy said it was not possible to get everyone behind an effort to combat homelessness and that advocates should not let that stop them from pursuing solutions that work around the country. She said she would rather see the energy embodied in the frustration of some speakers focused on enacting solutions.
“You can’t always have everyone on your side, but it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do the right thing,” Healy said. “If you do it well it will shift minds.”