SARATOGA SPRINGS -- The Holiday Inn on Broadway has become the temporary emergency shelter for Shelters of Saratoga as the organization works to keep the homeless safe as the novel coronavirus continues to spread.
Shelters of Saratoga Executive Director Karen Gregory said the arrangement worked out between the shelter, the city and the Holiday Inn is helping keep people safe from the virus that causes COVID-19.
"Isolating people experiencing homelessness in individual hotel rooms with access to private bathrooms is the best possible solution to facilitate safe distancing and the ability to practice good hygiene, thus preventing a community-wide spread of COVID-19," the non-profit agency said in announcing the arrangement, which went into effect last weekend. "Food service, basic necessities and case management is being provided to those staying in the hotel."
The main Shelters of Saratoga shelter on Walworth Street continues to operate. The arrangement with the Holiday Inn replaces one in which the Saratoga Senior Center -- closed for senior citizen activities because of the pandemic -- was serving as an emergency homeless shelter, but it didn't allow for quarantining if someone became sick. So far, nobody being sheltered has tested positive.
“Our number one priority is the health and safety of people we are helping each day. Social distancing and hygiene is the only way to slow the spread of COVID-19. Unfortunately, people experiencing homelessness don’t have the ability to stay home.” Gregory said. “People experiencing homelessness don’t have regular access to sinks where they can wash their hands and those staying at homeless shelters can’t always remain six feet from another person. There are simply too many people and not enough space.”
In addition, Gregory said homeless individuals face a variety of issues increasing their risk of COVID-19, including age, poor health, disability and living conditions that leave them highly vulnerable to illness. Once the virus is introduced to this high-risk population, further transmission will be very difficult to contain, she said.
Saratoga County as of late Tuesday had 167 confirmed COVID-19 cases, with the number continuing to climb.
Gregory said Saratoga County social services wouldn't provide hotel space unless someone became sick, but after she took her concerns to Mayor Meg Kelly they were able to make an arrangement with Holiday Inn. Gregory is also staying in the hotel to ensure the arrangement runs smoothly. The number of people housed at the hotel varies from day to day.
Holiday Inn General Manager Kevin Tuohy, a city native who returned to the area last year, said the arrangement hearkens back to the hotel's beginnings in 1961, when community leaders worked hard to attract a chain hotel at a time when the city's resort economy had been down for years.
"While asking for donations from locals, the founders of the hotel stated that 'change can impact a community in a positive way,'" he said. "Fifty-six years later, we are incredibly proud to have the opportunity to change the way we operate to support the Saratoga Springs community in this time of unprecedented crisis.”
Touhy said the downturn in hospitality bookings caused by the pandemic means there are rooms available, and there is a financial arrangement between Shelters of Saratoga and the hotel, with the numbers of rooms available being fluid. "The folks at Shelters of Saratoga do a great job. They're the heroes here," he said.
Kelly said the federal and state guidelines that say the homeless don't get quarantined unless they show symptoms is inadequate.
"For our city, this was not a high enough standard," Kelly said. "I'm proud that Saratoga Springs is joining a short, but growing list of communities across the country prepared to prevent infection and spread among our homeless population by using hotels to practice social distancing and enable access to adequate hygiene, hand washing, and quarantine. This will save lives."
Kelly said she was grateful to "Gregory for her agility in the face of this crisis" and to Touhy and the Holiday Inn for their assistance.