Past Public Safety Commissioner Lew Benton: City Council Failed to Take Necessary Steps Initiating Shelter Plan

[Lew Benton served as the city’s Public Safety Commissioner 1988-1995]


I think Chris [Mathiesen] is on target.

The following may inform Chris’s point.

Tuesday’s Times Union story by Wendy Liberatore, headlined “Shelters pushes back on 24-hour center for homeless” is made significant not by what it reports, but by what it fails to report.

The story, from my perspective, raises more questions than it answers about the proposed adaptive reuse of the current Senior Center on Williams Street to house a Code Blue facility, a so-called “navigation” center and a full-time, low-threshold adult homeless shelter.

What left me somewhat confused (not difficult at my age) was the reporter’s reference to a Monday release by the intended project operator (Shelters of Saratoga) which included the following:

a year-round low-barrier shelter at 5 Williams St. is not the best solution to address the city’s problem of the

“There are many implications to this type of shelter, a significant departure from our recommendation, with a wide range of new factors that must be cautiously evaluated,” and, most notably,

the need for a clear understanding of “the viability of the site location, 365/24 staffing requirements, expanded services, community impact, short-term and sustained long-term funding, regulatory implications, and the practical impact on best serving the Saratoga Springs homeless community.”

SOS leadership’s view that the proposed multi-use facility on Williams Street, was not a solution to the “problem” of the unhoused; presented as a “ … significant departure from our (SOS’s) recommendation; and lacked a clear understanding of site location …” seemingly contravenes the City Council’s October 18, 2022, authorized lease agreement.

That unnamed resolution that authorized a lease agreement with SOS contingent on “… Shelters of Saratoga using the Property to run a full-time facility that provides a state-mandated Code Blue Shelter, a navigation center, and a full-time low-threshold shelter on the Property.” 

How could such a disconnect have occurred? Even a cursory reading of the Council’s resolution would lead to the conclusion that the project was well on the way to implementation. 

Surely, SOS and the City Council understood the full scope of the programs and services required of the lease agreement, the burdens imposed by the state regulatory agency (the Division of Shelter Oversight and Compliance), and the need to gain a state operating certificate. 

But is it feasible that the city council did not fully understand its October action. And if it did, how could it not have foreseen community reaction. No disciple work was done with adjacent properties prior to the adoption of the October resolution.

There were no public meetings to announce the proposal, give it definition and allay the inevitable neighborhood concerns (real or imagined). Most did not become aware of it until after the Council had already acted. There appears to have been no press coverage beforehand.

The public record of the lead up to the adoption of the October 18 resolution is telling. The October 17, 2022, City Council Pre-Agenda Meeting included a list of named presentations scheduled to be made at the following evening’s regular bimonthly meeting.

The list included: 2. Shelters of Saratoga and the minutes of that meeting noted the agenda item resulted in “no comments” by Council members but one commissioner did ask if presentations could be limited to a specific amount of time to prevent them from going on too long. 

The mayor’s pre-agenda included the following: Discussion and Vote: Resolution on 5 Williams Street. The meeting minutes indicate that at the pre-agenda meeting the mayor “… advised this item will be moved to number one on his agenda and changed to a resolution on homelessness. “ Not one member of the Council commented or asked about the resolution’s content.

The minutes record no discussion at all on what would seem a rather major public policy action.
But when the final agenda for the October 18 regular Council meeting was posted it appeared as Discussion and Vote: Resolution on 5 Williams Street on the mayor’s agenda. Few would have connected such a such an innocuous agenda item with the authorization of a “full-time, low threshold shelter.”

Remarkably, given the intensity and potential impacts of the proposed use this was the only discussion memorialized in the meeting minutes:

“Commissioner Moran asked if the City has an understanding of the budget for the shelter to operate. Commissioner Sanghvi stated it would be about $65,000 for the season. Commissioner Moran stated that is an amount that is within reach for the Council. Commissioner Moran asked in regards to the statement of construction of transitional or low income housing, are there plans still to come. Mayor Kim stated there are conceptual plans for that property. There is no way to build an additional floor above the existing facility. The next step after looking at licensing is to look for the funding. The site allows for a number of things to be done. Supervisor Gaston stated the Code Blue season runs through April 15th and is not sure if this resolution was intended to align with that date. Commissioner Sanghvi made a friendly amendment seconded by Commissioner Montagnino to change the date to on or about April 15, 2023.”

Subsequently it became apparent to some that the Council’s action was premature and was adopted before several steps necessary steps to move the project had been taken or even initiated.
Apparently no required Emergency Shelter Operational Plan had been prepared and submitted to the state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, no required SEQR review by the Council had been taken and no disciple work begun.

The city council was advised of all this. What, if anything it did I don’t know. 

The Saratoga Catholic community has been publicly criticized for opposing the proposed full-time, low-threshold shelter immediately adjacent to its middle and high school. 

The proposal’s poor rollout, the failure to consult with neighbors and school administration beforehand and the absence of a definitive operating plan inevitably would cause concern. 

Would not any school community, public, private or parochial, act similarly?

In 2013, in response to the death of a homeless woman from exposure, the Church of St. Peter and Saratoga Catholic opened the auditorium in its former elementary school (still used as by Saratoga Catholic Central school for certain activities) to an emergency Code Blue shelter.

Here is how Times Union’s Dennis Yusko reported on it.
Code Blue for homeless in Saratoga Springs
By Dennis Yusko on December 20, 2013 at 7:31 PM

An emergency effort to shelter homeless persons during cold and snowy nights could start Christmas Eve in Saratoga Springs after political leaders, clergy and social service professionals rallied to create a Code Blue program.

Under the plan announced Friday by Mayor-elect Joanne Yepsen, the nearly dozen persons who do not have homes or lodging in Saratoga Springs will be able to sleep inside the Church of St. Peter’s parish building on Broadway whenever temperatures drop below 10 degrees or a foot or more of snow is forecast.

The program will start Tuesday, when the mercury is expected to slip to eight degrees. Existing organizations will spread the word about the plan. Police and firefighters will look for homeless on the streets and in their usual hangouts. They or members of the Saratoga County Economic Opportunity Council (EOC) will provide free transportation to St. Peter’s. The Red Cross will supply cots and blankets. Shelters of Saratoga (SOS), which operates a “dry” shelter in the city for $10 a night, will help with food and outreach.

The plan comes in direct response to last week’s tragic death of Nancy Pitts, a 54-year- old graduate of Saratoga Springs High School who died from exposure on an outside porch of the Saratoga Senior Center after spending a freezing night there, according to police. Pitts lived on the streets and struggled with drinking and poor health. All homeless persons in the city will be able to access the emergency shelter without conditions, Yepsen said Friday in City Hall. She was joined by SOS Executive Director Peter Whitten, Gary Ferris, executive director of the American Red Cross Adirondack-Saratoga Chapter, Joy King, a longtime friend of Pitts, Cindy Phillips, co-chair of the Saratoga County Housing and others.

The Saratoga program is modeled after the Code Blue system in Albany, which starts in November and runs through March 15. That Code Blue was partly spurred on by the death of Darrell Glass, 31, a homeless man who froze to death off Northern Boulevard in February 2007. Liz Hitt, executive director of the Homeless and Travelers Aid Society (HATAS), administers the Albany program and helped provide a template for the Saratoga Springs Code Blue. She said dozens of persons in the two cities were prepared to sacrifice Christmas Eve to ensure no one suffers in the cold.

Hardly inconsistent with the social teaching of the church but done on an emergency basis in a way that addressed the safety of all. 


5 thoughts on “Past Public Safety Commissioner Lew Benton: City Council Failed to Take Necessary Steps Initiating Shelter Plan”

  1. I don’t get the sense that any of the parties involved understand what running a low barrier shelter means, or the challenges involved in moving it from an abstract concept to something that can change peoples’ lives. That no ground work was done in the neighborhood ahead of time is baffling to me too. Thanks for this post Mr. Benton.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m not sure which parties you are including yet I’m fairly confident both Duane Vaughn and Kathy McNeice are aware of what is involved and what a low-barrier shelter is. As was indicated in their recent message there is a difference between a “permanent Code Blue Shelter (low-barrier winter shelter that operates from November-April) and resource navigation center (year-long daytime wrap-around services)” and what the City (Kim in particular) was promoting “a 365-day, 24-hour per day shelter, including the idea of a low-barrier shelter”. They went on to add

      “…including a clear understanding of what the City hopes to achieve with either a 365/24 shelter or a low-barrier shelter, and what that means, the viability of the site location, 365/24 staffing requirements, expanded services, community impact, short-term and sustained long-term funding, regulatory implications, and the practical impact on best serving people facing homelessness in Saratoga County. ”

      So, if there are those that don’t understand, I’ll posit that it is those sitting on the City Council who seem to have taken the original proposal and agreement and unilaterally changed and complicated it.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. The county F’d the city over by not working with the city to secure the former Dept of Health building on Woodlawn. Literally F’d themselves over as well. If Phil Barrett had panhandlers at every intersection or others sleeping in front of the movie theater, or god bless, someone pissing on the side walk….. he’d be screaming for a solution. But, because there is no impact on the other supervisors, they don’t care.

    Since they didn’t care then and don’t care now, maybe we can work with Adk Trust. Sell Williams to the highest bidder to build high end condos or work force housing, and then purchase the Dept of Health building from the bank. Ya know, the same building that the county F’d us out of.

    The vacant 5 Williams St property is now a liability to the city as we attempt to find a use for it.

    Another organization that needs to now be part of the solution is the diocese. Most readers understand why I am not a fan of that “business”, but the Superintendent spoke and wrote on record that they are willing to be a part of the solution. So that means they should be a part of the task force. Catholic Charities, just that little arm of the Catholic business, filed an IRS tax return showing they manage $45,000,000 per year. That’s not too far off from our city’s $57,000,000 annual budget. Clearly, since the superintendent offered to help, the diocese can afford a few bucks to keep the homeless away from the church.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. This council is a true embarrassment and liability for current and former residents; it’s time for real candidates with intellectual integrity and passion to maintain this great city.

    Liked by 2 people

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