Homeless in Saratoga: A Remembrance of Nancy Pitts

Homeless in Saratoga: A Remembrance of Nancy Pitts
An unknown man, likely homeless, asleep one fall afternoon on Broadway
Dale Willman

December 19 2013

Nancy Pitts died in Saratoga last week. Her death, a lonely one, may have gone unnoticed were it not for the circumstances. The 54-year old woman was found last Thursday morning, lying unresponsive on the back porch of the Senior Center on Williams Street. Police were called, and confirmed that she was dead.

News of her death has sparked a conversation among community leaders about how best to deal with the homeless and others in need, especially during weather so severe that to stay outside for an extended time could mean a fate similar to Nancy’s.

For many, her death has also begun an important conversation during a season of redemption and forgiveness – one about compassion for those less fortunate; about grace; and perhaps above all, about human dignity.

Nancy Pitts was known around Saratoga, at least within the community whose job it is to provide for those less fortunate. Until earlier this year, Bo Goliber was a part of that community. Goliber, who now handles community relations for Fingerpaint, worked for the Franklin Community Center (FCC), a non-profit human service agency in town. And she knew Nancy.

Bo had what she describes as an incredibly poignant experience exactly one year ago, when she met Nancy at FCC during the Christmas holiday. When they met, Nancy was temporarily removed from a life on the streets Bo says, praying that she would have the strength to keep moving forward. Bo says she remembers feeling an overwhelming sense of relief, along with anxiety – a desire for Nancy to succeed, but fearing that the statistics for people in such circumstances were working against her.

That meeting so resonated with her, she wrote an essay about their exchange. This Christmas season, one year later, we present you that essay. We hope that it serves as a starting point for more conversation.

To Nancy – you helped me learn a humbling life lesson that will never be forgotten. May you finally find some peace.

As I unlocked the door at 9 on that rainy Friday morning, she was standing on the porch with her familiar blonde hair and blue eyes.  I did a double take, as I thought I recognized her from before, but she looked so much healthier and more kept than the person I was thinking of, so I second guessed myself and opted not to say, “Wow, you look great,” even though I was thinking it.

She greeted me warmly, as she shook off her umbrella and left it on the porch.  I walked her inside, and she sat across from me at the front desk.  I kept studying her face, trying to decide whether she was the person I remembered from previous visits, or was it just that she resembled her?  The person I remembered would stop in to get hygiene products and toothpaste, often looking tired, dirty and defeated.  I would see her around town pushing a shopping cart and even sleeping on benches, congregating with some of the homeless people in the city…

But the person sitting in front of me that morning looked different.  She had a sparkle in her eye, her hair was styled nicely and her clothes were clean.  Her gold Christmas pin on her jacket glistened as the light reflected off the red and green rhinestones.  The office was momentarily quiet, so we engaged in conversation.

“How can I help you,” I asked.

“I’m hoping you can.  I’m just trying to see if I can get a round trip bus pass to the mall, please,” she said politely.  She explained she was on a job search.

Bus passes, unfortunately, are not a service our agency offers, so as I made a few phone calls and waited for them to be returned, I took the time to learn more about her.

“I was homeless for a while,” she began to say, which confirmed my idea that I thought I knew her from before.

“Can I just stop you right there?” I asked, somewhat abruptly. (I’m not really known for mincing words.)  “When I first saw you, I was going to tell you that you looked great, but I wasn’t sure it was you.  I remember you from before.  You’re clearly in a better place.  What helped you get back on your feet?” I asked, wanting to know more about her journey.

“I got a wake-up call,” she said.  “Something happened that just made me realize that I want to be here for my kids.  They’re grown now, but I want grandbabies,” she said with a smile.

From there we chatted for about 15 minutes.  I was completely moved by her story, a true tale of a downward spiral that somehow ended right-side up.  And a lesson for me, in the midst of the Christmas season, that couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time.  I wanted to know what made her decide to turn her life around after a year and a half of being homeless in Saratoga.  I was compelled to know how she got there in the first place.

She explained that she had led a wonderful life.  She was a stay-at-home mom, once married to an executive of a large organization.  She was passionate about her kids, gardening and being a homemaker.  But over the years her marriage dissolved, her husband lost his high-paying job, her kids grew up, and she was left working a low-paying job to help stay afloat.  A divorce, boredom and feeling unfulfilled made the occasional drink seem like an acceptable pastime.  Soon, the loss of everything she knew had her living on the streets.

So for a year and a half, she learned how to live her life as a homeless woman, traveling with those who were more familiar to the lifestyle.  She admits that, although she would drink, she didn’t “need” to.  She never considered herself a “drinker” since she really only enjoyed drinking one particular kind of rum, and if she didn’t have it, she didn’t drink.  She realizes now this is likely what helped her do a 180.

She went on to tell me that a few months ago, she was so sick, malnourished and exhausted, she could barely walk—and while crawling down the area of Route 50, a kind woman stopped to help her.  The last thing she remembers is being rushed to the hospital in an ambulance, falling asleep on the gurney.

Three days later, she awoke to the sound of a hospital Chaplain reading someone their last rights.  This time it wasn’t hers, but the person in the adjacent bed.  At her own feet stood a doctor who squeezed her foot and said, “Can you feel that?  This is it, Nancy, it’s now or never.   You don’t get a second chance.”

She learned she had survived severe pneumonia, a major blood transfusion and malnourishment.  Had she not gotten to the hospital when she did, that doctor would have been right.  She attributes her survival to that kind woman who stopped her car that day.

“I remember her face, her car, her voice,” she said.  “She has no idea what she did for me.”

As I listened to the woman in front of me tell her story, I had the realization that hers is one that could literally happen to almost anyone.  Once seemingly on top of the world, she had been to the bottom and was now on her way back up again.  I had seen her many times pushing her shopping cart up the street— and even in the office on occasion—and while I didn’t judge her, I admit that I didn’t give her story much thought at all.  Never once did I think that she and I might be sitting here one day, sharing our similar stories on the joy of being a stay-at-home.

“I once had diamonds in my ears,” she said, “But everything I had has been lost or stolen.  I’ve gotta start all over from scratch, starting with my health,” she stated matter-of-factly.  Given the simple gift of temporary shelter and support through agencies like ours, she’s in the process of rebuilding from square one.

“I’m only asking for the things I really need these days,” she said, as she turned down my offer for items from our food pantry, “but I’ll take that Ensure because the doctor said I need to put some weight back on!”

I took down her phone number so I could call her if I found a bus token.  After she left, I took a moment to reflect upon the amazing interaction I just had.  Whether it was the emotion of the holiday season or the lesson I had learned, I began to cry, grateful for the whole experience.

She has no idea what she did for me that day.  But at least I did help her to catch that bus.

    Melissa Jones Nicolaysen on December 21 2013

    I wish this article discussed the alcoholism that affected Nancy and many other homeless, instead of giving just that "she didn't consider herself a drinker," or "an occasional drink" In fact, being her neighbor, and talking to her quite a bit, I know that she spiked her morning coffee before taking her son to the bus stop and quite often, speech was slurred by the afternoon bus run. Alcohol has been a big part of her life for at least 15 years. I'm not trying to speak ill of the dead. It is sad that she ended up the way she did, with no one by her side at the end. The problem is, so many homeless battle drugs and alcohol and refuse to seek help. Many shelters not only won't let in people who are drunk or high, but if they can smell alcohol or if people "appear" high. The addict can't give up their alcohol or drugs even if it means the difference between having a warm bed or sleeping on the streets. We need to find better ways of dealing with our local addicts. We don't live in Florida or California, where the homeless can survive winter. We have so many homeless, there have to be limits on who can have a bed. The addicts lose out. We need to come up with more help for addicts. Maybe go back to when the police would sweep the area and pick up the homeless, who would at least get a warm bed when it is below freezing. As tax payers, it costs us money so many people would rather not be bothered, because it isn't something people want to think about. The problem is, we are all just one bad choice away from ending up on the streets...

    Margaret Bushee on December 20 2013

    I am new to the area but I think I saw her and did a double take. It isn't often you see a redhead lady homeless. She looked like someone you would see while shopping at Pricechopper. I was wondering if you could let me know what programs exist in this area. I would like to help.

    • Dale Willman on December 20 2013

      Hi Margaret. We just posted a story that lists the resources available in Saratoga for the homeless, and how you can offer to volunteer for any of those groups. Be sure to give it a read! And welcome to Saratoga.

    • Cynthia Woods on December 20 2013

      It says she has "Blond hair and blue eyes" NOT RED HAIR.

    Joni Cassidy Ernst on December 19 2013

    My sister and I knew Nancy for many years. My sister used to work with her at Oma Pizza. We hooked up with her when we found out that she was living on the streets. My sister gave her money, food, and would bring her to the store to buy her things she needed. I went through my closet and gave her bags of clothing. We watched her getting better through the past year and a half then watched her relapse into the the lifestyle that she had been living before. We felt so helpless, but my sister would still accept her phone calls and look for her downtown from time to time to give her food and money and to bring her some clean clothes that she was storing for her because she would say that people stole her stuff. Nancy was always so very thankful. Her life ended tragically and we are deeply saddened that she couldn't get her life back to at least having a roof over her head and to have her health back. May she now be at peace.

    Linda Weigel on December 19 2013

    I think it is really sad that in a town as affluent as Saratoga Springs, a person is not only homeless, but dies due to it. Saratoga is known as the summer place to be and is trying to be the year round place to be, but turns a blind eye to the poor and homeless. They cook your food, clean your rooms, cash you out at the store or sit in the library to stay warm but Saratoga would be happy if at the end of the day, we disappear. Homelessness is a problem that won't go away any time soon, but it would be nice if more resources were put in place to help the not so wealthy among us.

    • Megan Cochrany on December 19 2013

      a large problem is that shelters will not let you walk in the door if you have any alcohol in your system. so many people who have alcoholism are turned away.

    Megan Cochrany on December 19 2013

    the caption for your photo is disgraceful. the man is not "unknown." a proper photojournalist would have finished the job instead of "snapping the shutter" and leaving. Nancy was a sweet soul, that didn't deserve to die on the street.

    • Dale Willman on December 19 2013

      I’m sorry you would jump to conclusions without first asking. The photojournalist actually did do as you suggested. The man would not talk other than to acknowledge that he was homeless. Nor would he provide his name. Those who work with the homeless will tell you that this is not an unusual response from people living on the streets, who are sometimes afraid to reveal too much information about themselves, for various reasons. We also considered whether it was appropriate to use this picture at all, but felt that since the discussion this week has in part revolved around the level of homelessness in Saratoga, a picture showing that it is present even on Broadway would be appropriate.

    • Megan Cochrany on December 19 2013

      @ dale Williams- you don't have to give me a lesson on "people living on the streets" as I have unfortunately have found myself in that situation. I know this man- and if approached respectfully he would have been accommodating.

    • Dale Willman on December 19 2013

      Megan, because these comments are read by many people, it seemed appropriate to provide additional information. My apologies for your feeling it was a lesson. As to how he was approached, I can only tell you that it was done respectfully, and he was nothing but accommodating. He just didn't provide his name, which is certainly his choice.

    • Megan Cochrany on December 19 2013

      it certainly is his choice. my apologies on being a little on edge with this whole issue, as it takes the unfortunate death of a decent woman for people to "wring their hands together" and say how it's a "shame." but by next week it'll be old news.. most people will go back to not caring about others and more "unknown, likely homeless" people will freeze to death out on the street.

    Denise Marie on December 19 2013

    I knew Nancy for year from working with her at a hotel in town.Nancy was always a hard worker and very fun to be around.She will be greatly missed.Now I live in Vermont and there is a shelter here called the Upper Valley Haven which is free to stay at,more states should have a Heaven.We should be helping our people here in the US instead of every where else.May you rest in peace Nancy.


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