"There’s a misinterpretation about homelessness in Saratoga, as evidenced by our programs,
which are all at or over capacity... there is a misperception that Saratoga County is an affluent county, but all you have to do is drive down Broadway right now and drive into Congress Park.
People just kind of dismiss that."
Saratoga Springs, New York
"Very few people realize that there is a problem with homelessness in Saratoga."
Are people really that unaware?
Since the homeless are not a visible presence in Saratoga Springs, many people, especially transient visitors, remain largely unaware of the issue, which I have termed the "Unknown Homeless." This idea of the "unknown homeless" plays out quite often, especially during the winter, when large numbers of homeless make themselves visible in the search for warmth. During times of extreme cold S.O.S, which can only house 41 people are at time, is often so over capacity they are forced to turn people away-but how can a population be so large yet so invisible?
Unfortunately, as a society we are taught to fear and ostracize the homeless; and as a result, they are not allowed to occupy private and/or business areas and have no choice but to remain hidden. For example, recently the Saratogian published an article that covered the controversial decision of the Public Works Department to turn off the heat in the new Woodlawn Avenue parking lot. With S.O.S over capacity, many homeless began to congregate in the heated parking lot as temperatures dropped below zero. In order to get these people out of the lot, the Public Works Department ultimately chose to turn the heat off on them. While the Public Works Department did what they thought was best, the undercurrent of their decision highlights that within this town, like most places, the homeless are not welcome to make themselves visible and occupy public spaces; and as a result they are forced to re-locate and dwell in undisclosed, alternative spaces, such as congress park.
"There are really no other options available for people in the area"
For the invisible homeless, most are referred in to motels through the Department of Social Services (DSS). Mrs. Swinton stressed several times throughout our session that because of the lack of affordable housing and family shelters, DSS has no other option but motels. While I will not identify those living within the motels, nor their locations for privacy concerns, the majority of rooms are occupied by individuals and couples.
Other than the lack of space, the unsanitary living conditions are another problem. During my walk through I witnessed, in all three motels, varying degrees of building decay, filth, bugs and odor.
One of the biggest issues contributing to the influx of motel dwellers in the lack of subsidized housing, especially for families. While the town does have Jefferson Tower I, II, Vanderbilt terrace, and a few others owned by S.O.S, combined they provide less than two hundred units, and with over 27,000 residents the numbers are problematic if people keep loosing their jobs and homes (Saratoga Housing Authority 2013). Most of the people living in these motels are families because of the severe lack of family shelters and affordable housing, both individuals and families, are at risk of becoming trapped in a continus cycle of homelessness.
Additionally for all individuals in this predicament, when applying for work the stigma that comes along with living in a motel is often great enough to keep them from finding adequate work. For example, Mrs. Swinton described to me one of the dilemmas a man who currently lives in a motel is going through:
"No one wants to hire him because he lives in a motel and because he doesn’t have a car. But if he were to get a job he would be able to afford to move and get a car. Even though he has a bike, they question how he will get to work when it rains or snows, there's just no getting around it sometimes."
Why Shelters of Saratoga Works
Our job here is not to coddle [the homeless] and that's hard work. It's easy to give a handout, but it's even harder, and more productive to give a hand up. We challenge our guests to do the best they can do, not to show them how good we can be."
Since many residents who live in these motels, live far away from grocery stores the mobile outreach works to provide at least a days-worth of food, toiletries, and any anything else these people might need every Friday. Teaming up with fellow outreach group C.A.P.T.A.I.N, the mobile outreach tries to provide people with assistance and a means to improve their lives within a failed system. Although they can only provide what has been donated by community members, Mrs. Swinton and the members of C.A.P.T.A.I.N try their best to provide people with services, clothing, and resources they might need and/or request.
How is this done?
"We have rules, we have requirements, responsibilities, we require everyone that comes here to perform a chore, we require them to be out the building, going to look for employment, going to look for lodging."
Additionally, all guests are required to be sober upon entering, and stay sober throughout their stay. If any rules are broken they are discharged immediately. As one receptionist explained:
"We have rules here, and those who cannot conform will affect the performance of the guests who are willing to.”
While some would find their stance harsh, they are ultimately about giving people the chance to prove to themselves that they can rise above homelessness, which is by no means easy. For that purpose, while the Shelter tries as much as possible to facilitate guests in their recovery process, they place most of the responsibilities on the guests. It is the guests that have to make their own beds, fix their own meals, attend case management programs twice a week, find jobs, and future housing. This is all done to help motivate guests to become more independent and provide for themselves, rather than being stuck in a continuous cycle of hand-outs.
Their guests, in order to become "successes" must be willing to challenge and combat their deviant behaviors and issues, which the Shelter believes is the key to becoming a stable and functioning member of society. The Shelter has proudly coined the phrase:
"Everyone who leaves here ought to leave, in some way, no matter how small it is, in better shape than when they arrived."
Although not everyone is able to make it through the program, Mr. Whitten states:
"Its a lot of baby steps, but as long as we are able to help one person get back on their feet, we did our job."
While the shelter does provide help to those outside of the shelter through their mobile outreach program and other services, the shelter works mainly to provide help and resources for individuals who are willing to work to change their. If a guest is motivated enough, the shelter will provide them with any means in order to help them transition and progress.
There are many homeless who do not wish to be helped and are content living off handouts, and while the shelter will provide for that demographic, S.O.S focuses more on helping individuals out of the cycle of poverty. Rather than using resources to force people who do not want help into receiving it, they provide help and assistance to those who are willing to transform their habits and way of thinking for the better.