GLENS FALLS -- The people who see the faces of the homeless every day have long been convinced of the city’s need for a year-round homeless shelter that would not only provide a place to stay but would have programs that could help people find their own places to live.
After Open Door Ministries opened an emergency “Code Blue” shelter on Lawrence Street because of below-zero weather and then had to scramble to find a new place after it became apparent its soup kitchen building could not sustain the shelter, conversations about a permanent shelter have moved to the forefront.
Many questions remain, but those involved say the biggest step — the recognition of the need — appears to have happened.
“When I came here four years ago, these discussions would not have taken place,” said Major David Dean of the Salvation Army, whose group is among those sending a representative to what has become a weekly meeting on homeless issues.
“To a lot of people, there is not a homeless issue here, but there is,” he said. “Two years ago, we recorded 1,305 nights of putting people up. That’s at least four people a night, and we were putting them up for a week.
“But that’s kind of a Band-Aid,” he said. “Seven days later, most of those people are probably homeless again.”
Lynn Ackershoek, director of Warren-Hamilton Counties Community Action, has been working with the homeless and those in poverty for more than three decades, and she sees the same things as Dean.
“There has always been a homeless issue in Glens Falls, and with the economy, it has become more visible,” Ackershoek said. “And it’s not just during the winter. During the summers, we used to have tent cities. We actually stocked tents here at one point.
“The funding for a lot of what we used to do has disappeared,” she said.
“What happens is people are promised jobs, and when they get here, there are no jobs,” Dean said. “That’s why we see a lot of homeless in the summer. People live outside. We had some land we owned near the high school, and when we cleaned it out, we could see people had been living there.”
In 2010, the Glens Falls Planning Board rejected a proposal from the Open Door to open a soup kitchen and 30-bed emergency homeless shelter at the former Glens Falls Home for Aged Women building at 178 Warren St. The Planning Board rejected the proposal based on concerns from neighborhood residents, school officials and business representatives, who said a soup kitchen and homeless shelter would not fit with the neighborhood’s character.
Even when the Open Door was forced to move from South Street when the Madden Hotel was torn down, some neighbors in the Lawrence Street area opposed the soup kitchen operating there.
This time around, things have been different. When Open Door Director Kim Cook announced the soup kitchen would open a shelter on nights the temperature dropped to 10 or below or a foot of snow was forecast, there was a great deal of support.
When concerns about code issues at the Open Door site came up, the community reacted quickly, and a Code Blue shelter has been open at 103 Warren St. since last week, and Cook said it will be open until at least Jan. 30.
She said it has been averaging seven residents a night and has also drawn a great deal of community volunteer support.
Now that the community has responded well in a crisis, the hope is that the concern about the homeless issue will last beyond the cold weather.
“I think the community and the city are finally getting to the point where they think a homeless shelter is needed, that there is a problem,” Ackershoek said. “We need somebody to take the lead and say, ‘We are going to do this. There are facilities in the city that could be used for that.
We could make things happen.”
Hollie Rapp, director of assistance programs for the Washington County Department of Social Services, agrees on the need, but is not sure the public is on board.
“If there is a way to get a shelter started, there will be no trouble filling it. I do not see that the problem is going to go away on its own,” she said.
“I do not think people in the community really have any idea about the problem,” Rapp said. “The public does not understand there is a homeless problem in this area.”
And of those who do see the problem, most do not want a shelter near where they live.
“People recognize it, but they do not want it in their neighborhood. I think that what has to happen is that there has to be an area that will welcome it. That’s the piece that is the hardest,” Rapp said. “We need to find a place. To me, the rest of it can be worked out.
“Warren County would certainly like to see a shelter,” Rapp said. “Sometimes, there are people who are truly homeless and we cannot help for a ton of different reasons. People have too much money to qualify for our programs, but they do not have enough to be able to put themselves up.”
Success in Saratoga
One of the places that a number of the positive aspects of homeless shelters has come together is Saratoga Springs.
The city, which some may see as a more prosperous place than Glens Falls, has an extremely strong program in Shelters of Saratoga, which offers emergency shelter for up to 60 days, along with case management and training. It also works with CAPTAIN Youth and Family Services with an outreach program for youths ages 13 to 21 who are homeless or in financial need. Shelters goes beyond that to also focus on affordable housing and neighborhood preservation.
“Saratoga Springs has a wonderful program. They are not just putting people up, but they have a lot of counseling and resources. That helps people in and of itself, said Kelley Barker, who is the principal examiner in the eligibility unit of Warren County’s Department of Social Services and has been working with those in need for 24 years.
The executive director at Saratoga, Peter Whitten, is a Glens Falls resident.
He is quick to point out that the Saratoga program is much more encompassing than an emergency shelter.
“For us, it’s all about recovery and resuming life in a way people had in the past,” he said. “It’s is a recovery process.”
Saratoga volunteers went one step beyond that in December, pulling together an emergency Code Blue shelter at St. Peter’s Parish Center after a local homeless woman was found frozen to death after spending a very cold night on the loading dock at the Saratoga Senior Center.
Within days, the community had a shelter open — beginning on Christmas Eve. Like the Glens Falls shelter, the one at St. Peter’s is open this week.
“The intervention of the faith-based community is what made this come together,” said Gayle LaSalle, executive assistant to Saratoga Springs Mayor Joanne Yepsen, who was one of the catalysts for the emergency shelter. “There has been a lot of building of trust. Former homeless people are going out and telling people that this is a safe place.”
Whitten believes the Saratoga Springs Code Blue shelter could lead to a mission-style emergency shelter, not as all-encompassing as his shelter.
“I think what the Code Blue shelter has the potential to lead to the establishment of an emergency shelter,” he said, noting he would not be surprised if the same thing happened in Glens Falls.
“I would love to see a service here that would take care of the basic needs of life,” he said. “We would do anything we could to help them.”
Glens Falls does have a pair of successful facilities for the homeless, but they are very focused.
WAIT House, which serves homeless youths in Warren and Washington counties, runs an eight-bed emergency shelter as well as a transitional living program for young women. It also offers additional support and works toward permanent placement.
The Adirondack Vets House can support up to nine veterans and allows for stays of 12 to 18 months while the veterans work toward finding jobs and permanent homes.
Local social service agencies are mandated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to do a “point in time” count of the homeless.
Unlike years ago, when volunteers fanned out onto the streets, it is done by agencies asking people they serve whether they had their own homes, were in emergency or transitional housing or were unsheltered the night before.
This year’s count is being done this week, but the results will not be available for several weeks.
Last year, the count in Warren and Washington counties showed 15 people unsheltered last year, compared with 12 the year before and 15 in 2011.
There were 55 people in emergency housing according to the 2013 count, 83 the year before and 72 in 2011.
The number of people in transitional housing was 15 last year, 13 in 2012 and 17 in 2011.
All of those who work directly with the homeless said those numbers come in much lower than the actual count of those who are homeless.