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Saratoga County Alliance To End Homelessness hosts public forum

Assemblywoman Carrie Woerner speaks at Wednesday's public forum in Saratoga Springs
Lucas Willard
Assemblywoman Carrie Woerner speaks at Wednesday's public forum in Saratoga Springs

The Saratoga County Alliance to End Homelessness hosted a community forum Wednesday in Saratoga Springs. Officials and staff from local human services organizations are seeking a solution to an issue that has often animated city residents.

After introductions, the panel fielded questions from the audience at the Saratoga Springs City Center. Many of the questions and comments were related to unhoused individuals occupying sidewalks and parking garages.

City Deputy Public Safety Commissioner Jason Tetu read an audience question to City Police Lt. Jason Mitchell…

“’The next question is, why are the homeless allowed to occupy parking garages and defecate on sidewalks and streets?’ Legitimate question.”

“Ah, they are not allowed to defecate. They may. If they do and you see it occurring, call us.”

Similar questions continued for several minutes until Democratic Saratoga Springs county supervisor Tara Gaston spoke to the audience.

“All of these individuals are humans that live in our community and are equivalent to each and every one of us,” said Gaston.

Speaking with WAMC later, Gaston explained why she chose to take the podium.

“Yeah, sometimes someone is pushing a shopping cart and it’s left in a parking space or outside of a house but…there are lots of things that annoy us as people. There’s construction or there’s traffic or the sewer is being fixed, and that’s frustrating. But it’s all part of daily life. So is caring for the rest of our community,” said Gaston.

Gaston also reiterated that outreach work is being done, even if it is less visible.

Lieutenant Mitchell said anyone with concerns should not hesitate to contact police. He said police are able to redirect people to services.

“I don’t think enforcement is the issue all the time. I think it’s a collaborative effort here and meeting everyone, but I’ll definitely help anyone I can and so will my officers,” said Mitchell.

Mitchell said during the forum that a beat officer will be visible on Broadway from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. One attendee suggested those hours be shifted to 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.

The forum Wednesday night served as an introduction for the Saratoga County Alliance to End Homelessness. Formed in 2020, the alliance aims to coordinate a number of non-profit organizations dedicated to housing, mental health, and other human services.

Andy Gilpin is co-chair of the Alliance and Executive Director of CAPTAIN Community Human Services.

“People need a constant reminder there are people working on this, organizations working on this. There’s a collective effort behind it that sometimes that gets forgotten because we don’t have large ad budgets where we can get the word out there,” said Gilpin.

A common issue that panelists cited as contributing to the homelessness problem in the Saratoga area is the lack of affordable housing. The county is among the fastest-growing in the state and real estate prices are soaring.

“I talked about it, all the other organizations talked about that need for more housing, more affordable housing, finding ways that we can get more opportunities for folks to leave their situation of homelessness and have an ownership stake – even if they are renting – in their own property,” said Gilpin.

Democratic State Assemblywoman Carrie Woerner, who also served on Wednesday’s panel, said New York has put “a lot of emphasis” on affordable, transitional, and supportive housing.

“But finding a solution that works inside of a community, that takes some creativity and out-of-the-box thinking and I think there was a lot of energy towards finding a solution here in the room tonight and I was encouraged by that,” said Woerner.

Woerner highlighted investments in the most recent state budget for mental health treatment beds, but said more funding is needed. She said there is an over-reliance on community-based services already stretched thin.

“We’re moving forward but we need to do more.”

Saratoga Springs Mayor Ron Kim, also a Democrat, said the city is interested in working with the non-profit community to establish a permanent navigation center to direct those in need to housing and services.

“The city will…probably fairly soon, in a few months be making the concrete proposals and moving it forward.”

A navigation center has been a goal of Shelters of Saratoga, which operates the city’s Code Blue program during colder months. A temporary site has operated at the Code Blue shelter on Adelphi Street from November through April three days a week.

Other non-profits are also seeking to expand drop-in center programming, which is limited.

Recalling a defeated affordable housing proposal from his prior stint on the Saratoga Springs City Council more than a decade ago, Kim urged audience members to rally behind supportive housing and programs at all levels of city government. He also had a message for fellow local officials.

“The politicians have to have the courage to move forward on it.”

Lucas Willard is a news reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011. He produces and hosts The Best of Our Knowledge and WAMC Listening Party.