“There’s really a fine line between being successful and being homeless.”
In need and misunderstood, NY homeless community embraces support
When Tracy Novotny begins to talk about where he’s at in his life, he slows the pace of his speech. He needs a minute to swallow the pain he’s experienced as a new member of the Saratoga Springs, N.Y., homeless community. Life has reminded him in a ruthless way how delicate and fragile it can be.
That reminder makes him consider, out loud, the impact an act of kindness can have on someone who has lost everything.
“Think about if they fell into a situation where they didn’t have anything and all of a sudden they needed someone to rely on. They needed someone to put their hand out,” Novotny said, choking back tears, after staying at an emergency homeless shelter in Saratoga Springs for about two weeks.
Novotny has received that helping hand at Code Blue, an emergency shelter managed by Shelters of Saratoga (S0S) that is required to open its doors on evenings when the temperature drops below 32 degrees. He has been one of the lucky ones in recent weeks who has secured a warm place to sleep on one of the shelter’s 41 beds. Beyond hot meals and a cup of coffee, Novotny has found safety at the Code Blue shelter.
“It’s a God-send,” Novotny said. “It’s better than any alternative I have at the moment. I’ve been out there. I can imagine.”
He found himself in need of help after financial difficulties were compounded by unemployment and housing issues. Now, he is grateful for a warm, safe place to sleep and read at night.
“It makes a difference,” he said.
A number of Saratoga Springs residents are hoping, that with more space, the shelter will be able to make a greater impact in the years to come. But that hope, fueled by an incredible donation and public support, has been tempered by a lawsuit that seeks to halt the expansion of the shelter on its current footprint.
“We wanted to create a more permanent solution,” Ed Mitzen said of the donation he and his wife, Lisa, made to cover the costs associated with expanding the shelter.
Mitzen owns Fingerpaint, an advertising agency with four offices that began in Saratoga Springs. He and his wife have given their time to the shelter for more than four years. They were moved to become donors after serving food one Christmas Eve.
“There’s a really fine line between being successful and being homeless. It’s very easy to be very judgmental. They’ve just fallen on hard times,” Mitzen said. “Having worked with these people for four or five years, I don’t feel they are the danger everyone thinks they might be. They need some help.”
Rachael Dwyer is happy to give it to them. The only thing that separates her yard from the SOS shelter is a small alleyway, which makes her commute to volunteer pretty painless. Before becoming an official volunteer with Code Blue in 2013, Dwyer had a habit of leaving her cans and bottles out for her neighbors, knowing that small gesture would help someone.
“I’ve never been afraid to go out in my backyard or in my car,” she said.
It’s that knowledge that makes it difficult for Dwyer and others involved with the shelter to understand why a group of local residents have pressed to stop the shelter’s expansion, which has received unanimous municipal approval throughout the planning process.
Expansion plans call for the construction of a two-story building that will be located on the current SOS property. The building will include separate men’s and women’s quarters, multiple showers and bathrooms, a large kitchen, laundry facilities, and a sizeable storage area for donated food and clothing. LA Group and Bonacio Construction have agreed to handle the build-out without taking a profit to keep costs low.
There’s a reason why it’s important to expand on the current site. Mike Finocchi, the executive director of SOS, said the proposed site would make it easier to provide expanded services to Code Blue clients. Plus, it’s imperative for Code Blue to have a permanent space, after relocating three times in recent years.
“A place of our own is vital,” he said. “Basically, we’re here to save people’s lives, so a tragedy doesn’t happen.”
Finnochi, his staff, and volunteers all work to connect clients with services they need. It might involve investigating housing options or giving a client an address so he or she can secure insurance or apply for a job. The homeless community, Finnochi said, is simply misunderstood, noting that the No. 1 cause of homelessness is domestic violence.
“All these people are harmless,” Finnochi said. “They’re just trying to survive.”
Patrick Doody, an SOS employee, can relate. After being homeless for more than two years, he hopes people can see beyond the litigation related to the actual structure and understand how this type of investment would be perceived within the homeless community.
“If this shelter is able to be built, it would send a message to them, too, that they’re not being viewed as sub-human,” Doody said of the people he helps every day. “I needed somebody’s help. There is no telling what would have happened to me. Someone lifted me up and helped me. And, I’ve done well since. And, I’ve tried to pass on what I have to folks who are struggling here.”
Code Blue saved Don Petersimes, too, at a time when he was deciding between sleeping in a snowbank or sleeping on the sidewalk. He found himself homeless after he moved to the Northeast to care for his dying mother. When work dried up, he ended up on the streets.
“Concrete will suck the life out of a battery. It’ll kill it,” Petersimes said. “Imagine what it does to a human being. Nobody should live like that.”
Petersimes is hopeful that more space will provide more opportunity for Code Blue to foster more success stories, like his. After living on the streets for several years, he was convinced to enter rehab when Dwyer and two friends insisted, which was a life-changing moment for him.
“You’ll never know what the streets can do to you until you’ve had to live on them,” he said. “I never saw a life get turned around that got turned away. There’s never going to be a right place. The only right place is in your heart.”