Forum Addresses Saratoga Springs Vagrancy And Homelessness

May 20, 2016

Credit Lucas Willard / WAMC

The third-floor music hall at Saratoga Springs City Hall was filled for the Public Safety forum on the issue of aggressive panhandling. Public Safety Commissioner Chris Mathiesen assembled a panel consisting of the city’s police and fire departments and advocates for the disadvantaged.

Thursday night’s meeting follows a community workshop on vagrancy held Monday and a discussion at a city council meeting earlier this month. Throughout the discussions, public officials and advocates like Michael Finocchi of Shelters of Saratoga, who was on the panel, have asked residents to understand which populations they are discussing.

Advocates have asked the public to understand the difference between the homeless, vagrants who travel into the Spa City to ask for money, and street performers.

For more than an hour, members of the public approached the microphone to offer their suggestions of how the growing city can tackle the perceived homelessness issue.

Randall DesChamps, who is well known on Broadway as “Chalk Boy,” shared his experiences with poverty with the panel. Among his many suggestions was his request for appropriate housing for those trying to get off the streets.

“The people that live here that we need to get off the street need affordable, because they are from here, they cannot afford a $750 or $800 apartment,” said DesChamps.

DesChamps suggested the city look into micro-housing, a strategy being deployed in large cities across the country.

Others called attention to the issue of addiction and drug abuse.

Michelle Smith, Executive Director of the Children’s Museum of Saratoga, shared stories of needles being found in the museum’s parking lots. She said volunteers have found them on work days.

“They notified me that there was a needle. I went over and picked it up. Two weeks ago another volunteer group came, this happened to be students from a local school, and we found human feces in the stairwell going down into our basement area, which means, obviously, that someone is looking for shelter,” said Smith.

Brian Farr, a substance abuse counselor from Wilton, said vagrants are frequently seeking money for drugs or alcohol.

“Part of what you’re seeing is the result of addiction. We are not out of the woods of this heroin epidemic that everyone is talking about,” said Farr.

But Farr also asked the city to be compassionate and be part of the solution by creating more pathways to treatment and services.

Police chief Greg Veitch agreed that more can be done, and that the city cannot arrest its way out of the problem.

“Our experience is that the people we are dealing with routinely on the street, a lot of this is mental health related, a lot of this is addiction related. And these people do not need nightclubs and handcuffs, they need services in the long-term. When they’re breaking the law, yes, we can go deal with them, but in the long-term, no amount of arrests is going to help solve this problem,” said Veitch.

Veitch asked for anyone with concerns to contact the police department.

Assistant City Attorney Tony Izzo said the city is working on drafting a new law to target aggressive panhandlers, but again cautioned about the difficulties of such legislation without infringing on constitutional rights. It is not illegal to ask for money in a public place New York.

The conversation in the city was sparked after a photo of a man appearing to defecate in public was circulated online. A petition was started by a group of residents to make aggressive panhandling a crime; step up enforcement of existing ordinances against public urination, defecation, and loitering; and place more police on patrol downtown.

Ed Pinkerton, a co-author of the petition, said Thursday night that he has noticed a substantial change since the conversation was started. 

“This Saturday will be two weeks where this town has completely changed. If you walk the streets downtown, people are moving around. They are not sleeping on the streets. It’s a different town. Somebody is doing something,” said Pinkerton.