Saratoga Springs seeks solutions when dealing with vagrants
A speaker comes to the microphone during Thursday’s Public Safety Forum. Jennie Grey — email@example.com
By Jennie Grey, The Saratogian
Posted: 05/20/16, 5:37 PM EDT |
The audience gathers at Thursday’s Public Safety Department Forum in the Music Hall. Jennie Grey — firstname.lastname@example.org
SARATOGA SPRINGS >> With aggressive panhandlers becoming a challenge downtown, the city council is actively seeking solutions. Public Safety Commissioner Chris Mathiesen, whose department is the most affected by the issue, held an open forum titled “Vagrancy in Saratoga Springs” Thursday in the Music Hall.
“Our downtown was reinvented in the ’80s and is now doing extremely well,” he said. “We owe this to the active Chamber of Commerce, the tourism bureau and the Saratoga Performing Arts Center. But as wonderful as things are now, it’s still a fragile miracle. People are concerned.”
Citizens have come forward with public comments, letters and petitions against the aggressive acts of some panhandlers, who yell abuse, physically block or pull on passers-by, and misuse public and private property.
Children’s Museum of Saratoga Executive Director Michelle Smith said she’d had eight recent instances of vagrants troubling the museum. These ranged from a man shaking his fist at a driver who wouldn’t roll down her window to finding human feces in the stairwell leading to the basement.
“It’s very difficult; very concerning,” she said. “We would like the police to come by more often. It’s very unsettling to be so unsafe.”
“No city is exempt from homelessness,” said Shelters of Saratoga (SOS) Executive Director Michael Finocchi.
The homeless who come to SOS are victims of domestic violence, have mental illness, lack affordable housing options, are underemployed, have chronic health conditions, have chemical dependency or were recently incarcerated.
One of the first points of clarity Mathiesen raised was that vagrants and homeless people have rights, just like any other citizens. He called Assistant City Attorney Tony Izzo to the microphone to speak on this.
Izzo said that first, it’s important to understand the issue here. Vagrants can be defined legally as idle people without visible means of support, as tramps or beggars. Vagrants may well have homes and cars, whereas homeless people lack housing.
“If you follow a vagrant at the end of the workday, you might see him get into his car and drive home,” Finocchi said.
People have the right to panhandle, Izzo said, since asking for money is a form of free speech. Being drunk in public is also not a crime. Loitering is not a crime.
“So we are limited in the types of laws that can be written that pass a constitutional test,” he said. “We are working on writing a city law against sitting or lying on the sidewalk. There are lots of reasonable exceptions, such as sidewalk sales.”
Wellspring Executive Director Maggie Fronk said that one of the wonderful things about this community was that everyone works together to brainstorm ideas. Her organization helps support people fleeing domestic violence and sexual abuse. Wellspring has given 15,000 bed nights annually for such individuals.
“We all want to make the city safe and thriving for everyone,” she said.
Police Chief Greg Veitch said people should call the police whenever they felt uncomfortable or threatened by vagrants.
“But you can’t confuse the police with being a solution to the problem,” he cautioned. “We can’t arrest our way out of this issue.”
He said the police did not do homeless sweeps or roundups, which would be illegal. The homeless have the right to be in public places.
Finocchi said, “You need services in place for the homeless.”
SOS runs a 35-bed case-managed shelter, the only one in three counties. It’s a drug- and alcohol-free environment where the onus is on the individual to do the right thing. SOS also runs the emergency shelter Code Blue and a street outreach program.
The shelters run a drop-in center one day a week. Finocchi said having that center open more days would help SOS build relationships with the homeless and get people the services they need.
He shared success stories: In 2014, SOS sheltered 400 individuals. Some 44 percent of guests left with an income of their own. Some 109 were permanently housed, and four graduated to affordable housing units.
“We do ask people not to give money directly to the homeless,” Finocchi said. “Many of these individuals have mental-health issues, which they self-medicate with alcohol or drugs, and that’s where the money from panhandling often goes. In Schenectady or Troy, panhandlers can make $200 in a week. In Saratoga Springs, they can make $200 in a day.”
Educating the summer tourists is also key, he said. SOS recommends buying the homeless a meal instead of giving them money.
The nonprofit is also working with downtown businesses to install locked drop boxes where people can place money to be donated to the shelters. That way, the funds will be used for good instead for drugs.
One man who stood up to speak at the forum said the city ought to aggressively address the problem and help our neighbors to real independence.
“We need to make sure we aren’t giving money to support people’s vices,” he said.
Brian Farr, a substance abuse counselor, took the microphone and said, “Hats off to everyone who is here and cares about this community.”
He said that for 17 years, he had worked with thousands of people with addiction issues: rich, poor, those who owned mansions, those on the street. Farr emphasized the importance of recognizing substance abuse and addiction as diseases, not merely vices or bad habits.
“Part of what you’re seeing in the homeless is the results of addiction,” he said. “And Saratoga is an awesome place to get sober.”
Farr is currently chair of Recovery Advocacy in Saratoga.
A former shelter resident came forward to speak. On his own since age 8, he was employed steadily until he was hit by a truck. Now, after his time in SOS, he is working for a local philanthropy and living in his own apartment.
“The past five years have been heaven,” he said. “This city is a miracle. And everyone who comes can get help if he just asks.”
Nancy Black told of her arrest for driving while intoxicated and how the consequences changed her life. She warned against giving the panhandlers money.
“Positive changes can come with proper services and help,” she said.