"If they don't give you a seat at the table, bring in a folding chair" - Shirley Chisholm
Saratoga Unites has a big table and room for many voices. Each month, we will profile a member of our community, to uplift their voices and share insights. These voices will fill in our understanding of the challenges and benefits experienced by those we seek to help, and help us identify how to further the Saratoga Unites mission in our community.
February 2018: Victor
Victor’s first experience without a home was at 17, camping out with his father and sister in Moreau Lake State Park. Before that, he spent time in an orphanage; had little interaction with his mother, who struggled with paranoid schizophrenia until she died in 2009; lived with an aunt who was angry at the world and pointed that anger at the children living with her; moved with his father, when his father wasn’t being arrested in front of his children and taken away in a cop car; and along the way experienced neglect and poverty that makes living in a tent not such a step down from what he had already lived through.
“So, what do you think we in Saratoga can do to support those who are homeless?”, I ask. Victor responds simply. “Look at the homeless as equals.”
Victor is a youthful-looking 31, born in Salt Lake City, and after living in various locations during his childhood from Utah to Minnesota, has been in New York longer than anywhere else. Saratoga Springs is his home.
When I meet Victor walking up to Spot Coffee, he doesn’t carry a sign that says, “I’m homeless”. He is as anonymous as anyone else walking through the streets of Saratoga. He has a great welcoming smile, is outgoing, and friendly. That you wouldn’t peg him as homeless while walking down the street is not some brilliant revelation; I still haven’t worked out a method to determine whether a person rents an apartment or owns a million-dollar condo based on how they present themselves in public. But that anonymity resonates a bit more for the most vulnerable in our town, as many of us don’t realize that a fair number of residents of Saratoga Springs don’t have a home to call their own.
According to the Capital Region Coalition to End Homelessness, as of January 2016, 268 people were identified without permanent shelter in Glens Falls/Saratoga Springs, Saratoga, Washington, Warren, and Hamilton counties. It’s more than a little, but easy to go unnoticed unless you’re a volunteer at Code Blue. Or happen to notice tents scattered through the woods on the outskirts of town. Or, in my case, when my partner and I adopted two puppies with an insatiable desire to meet every person we encountered along Broadway, including many our community’s homeless.
I asked Victor to meet me for coffee and hear his perspective on how to bring change to Saratoga Springs. It was quickly clear that he’s thought about life and community in a much larger context than his current living situation.
When Victor and his family had to move into a tent, it made it hard to stay in school, and life has continued to throw challenges at him. He’s been arrested and in jail several times, and been through numerous periods without a home, including this winter.
I asked Victor about the challenges of being without shelter in Saratoga Springs, and rather than focusing on the tactical problems of homelessness, Victor highlighted the difficulty, and often resistance, of shifting one’s energy from getting through the day without a roof to call your own, into the ins and outs of housekeeping: paying bills, groceries, budgeting, etc.
His perceptions on the challenges of transitioning and adapting to the logistics of maintaining shelter, on top of the need to still deal with addiction, mental illness, or past trauma, are only further validated by the growing interest in a Housing First model of policy and programs for moving people off the streets. The Housing First approach challenges more traditional models, focusing on moving people into housing as quickly as possible, while providing support services to address other individual issues. The stability of having a home without preconditions, such as sobriety, or medication, addresses the transition as one of many stepping stones, working to ensure an individual isn’t overwhelmed by the transition and then potentially at greater risk of failure.
Victor had an apt analogy for how we all settle with what we know from our past. “Your brain is like a field, it’s a big open field of grass. You got trails in your field because you have to get from place to place…the more you travel the same route, the more it gets tread down, the more you’ll know it…” He laid out the struggles of changing those routes, not to mention being expected to align your path with another.
I can relate! There have been times in my life where taking on a big change battled with my instincts to stick with what I know. How would any of us react to having all the responsibilities of home if we didn’t come armed with the skills honed through even a somewhat stable childhood, or a support system waiting in the wings. My dad taught me to make pancakes when I was 8. My mom showed me how to balance a checkbook. All those little lessons add up to a comfortable starting point to take on the responsibilities of an adult; I can see clearly how those stepping stones quickly piled up into an advantage I haven’t appreciated enough.
Our discussion shifts towards the future. Victor isn’t looking to settle into so-called normal society, “I don’t care about a house.” He is certainly smart, and knows that that’s easier to say when one is 31 and still healthy, young, and has time to change his mind.
Multiple times, I tried to get an answer to the main question of my interview: what can the community of Saratoga do to improve the lives of homeless in our town? Victor kept drawing me back to the answer, which I resisted at first: there is no single answer to that question. We must be able to react and adjust our solutions based on the histories and experiences of the individuals in our community. Victor elaborated on the idea that we can’t settle on a status quo with a quote from Marilynne Robinson (from The Death of Adam):
"We routinely disqualify testimony that would plead for extenuation. That is, we are so persuaded of the rightness of our judgment as to invalidate evidence that does not confirm us in it. Nothing that deserves to be called truth could ever be arrived at by such means."
Anyone who can pull quotes out of air always impresses me; I also came away from Victor’s story with a powerful appreciation for his perspective on life and community. As we parted ways from the coffee shop, I was energized by his willingness to voice his thoughts, how those words could translate into action, and how maybe a more perfect community isn’t so unreachable after all.
Do you want to help?
These are some of the programs in our region offering shelter services and in need of volunteers and/or donations.
Shelters of Saratoga
Code Blue Saratoga
Domestic Violence Services / Saratoga Rape Crisis Program
Mother Susan Anderson – Women and Children Emergency Shelter: 518-226-0696