Obstacles include affordable housing, addiction and mental health
Ithaca service agencies are working with city officials and the Tompkins County Department of Social Services (DSS) to keep as many people off the streets as possible and provide supportive services for the current homeless population this winter.
Kevin Sutherland, City of Ithaca chief of staff, said the city government is aware of around a dozen people currently living on the street. Jamie Williamson, public information officer at the Ithaca Police Department, said the law prohibits a person from spending the night on public property. However, he said the enforcement of this law is not always practical if the homeless shelter is full.
“There may not be any openings in the shelter,” he said. “We as police officers have to weigh each incident and make as reasonable a decision as practical regarding what to do about someone sleeping in public.”
Sutherland said he believes homelessness has decreased in the city over the past couple of years. A lot of the credit for the reduction has gone to the Rescue Mission, which runs a homeless shelter on State Street. The shelter has maxed out its space to get as many people off the streets as possible.
Access to State Street shelter
The Rescue Mission took over the State Street shelter from the American Red Cross in March of 2014, according to an Ithaca Voice article from Nov. 2014. In that article, Dan Sieburg, chief programs officer at the Rescue Mission, said the Red Cross had been sheltering an average of six to seven people a night. However, he said since the Rescue Mission took over, the shelter has been housing up to 20 people a night.
Deborah Dietrich, executive director of Opportunities, Alternatives and Resources of Tompkins County — a nonprofit that assists current and former inmates and their family and friends — said the Rescue Mission has been much more open than the Red Cross about letting anyone in need stay at the shelter.
“The Rescue Mission just kind of opened their doors,” she said.
According to numbers gathered from the Human Services Coalition of Tompkins County, in 2014 the number of bednights — one individual housed in a shelter for one night — increased by 170 percent over 2013.
Kathy Schlather, executive director of the Human Services Coalition of Tompkins County, said the increase is a reflection of the Rescue Mission opening its doors, and not necessarily an accurate barometer of whether the homeless population increased or decreased in that time.
Schlather said her agency counts the number of homeless individuals each January. She said although the results of that count for this year have not yet been processed, she expects the current number of people living on the street in Ithaca to fall between 10 and 20 people. However, Schlather added the number of people living on the streets isn’t constant and often depends on the weather.
“If you were going to do a [homeless] count in August, when people are much more comfortable staying out, you’d find a lot different numbers,” she said.
However, despite more people having access to shelter, Dietrich said the Rescue Mission shelter can’t solve the problem of homelessness alone. She said because the Rescue Mission has opened its doors to so many people in need, the shelter is running into capacity problems and fire code laws, which prevent it from taking in more people.
In addition, Dietrich said the shelter received a cut to the funding it received from DSS in 2014. Sutherland said the Rescue Mission shelter is the only night-to-night shelter available in Ithaca.
Affordable housing crunch
A contributing factor to homelessness in Ithaca is the city’s lack of affordable housing, Sutherland said. An article in The New York Times from April of 2014 listed Ithaca as having the 11th rent prices relative to median gross income out of 90 cities where median rent, not including utilities, was more than 30 percent of median gross income.
Sutherland said to address this problem, the city needs to develop in all areas of housing.
“We have to be looking to build more housing, and that means in every sector, including in affordable housing,” he said.
Schlather said the reason the price of housing in Ithaca is so expensive is due to high demand coupled with low supply. She said the city has a vacancy rate of 0.5 percent, meaning just half a percent of housing units are unrented.
However, one of the often overlooked aspects of the lack of affordable housing is the problem low-income families can face in finding housing inexpensive enough and will fit their entire family, Nancy Burston, associate director of the Human Services Coalition, said.
“Anytime you have one, or two, or three, or four kids, it makes it hard because then you have to find affordable housing that’s big enough for a family,” Burston said.
Burston said there are cheaper housing options available in the outlying towns surrounding Ithaca, but that the problem then becomes access to reliable transportation. Dietrich agreed with Burston’s assessment, saying reliable transportation is necessary because most of the area’s services are found in Ithaca.
“From our clients’ point of view, the biggest problem is transportation,” Dietrich said. “We’re spending more on bus passes than we ever have.”
Additionally, the lack of affordable housing in the city is one of the factors that has led to the creation of settlements of homeless individuals in Ithaca known as the Jungle.
“[The Jungle] is city-owned property where homeless individuals have found that no one gives them a hard time,” Sutherland said. “They’re kind of secluded, yet they’re within city limits.”
Sutherland said city government is in constant contact with DSS regarding how many people are currently residing in the Jungle as well as what services might be available to those living there. Williamson said the IPD also works with the city to make sure the area stays safe.
Problems of mental health, addiction
One of the issues many people within the homeless population face is addiction to alcohol and other drugs, as well as mental health problems, Schlather said. She said the problem of affordable housing is well-known around the city, but it’s not the only factor contributing to homelessness.
“The people who are homeless have some kind of substance abuse problem or mental health issues, which keep them from maintaining stable housing, and may keep them from being able to maintain employment… it’s all a package,” she said.
One of the problems with the current shelter system is the lack of a “wet shelter,” Schlather said. She said a wet shelter is one that accepts people who are still drinking and using substances, as opposed to a “dry shelter,” which prohibits the continued use of these substances.
“People deserve a safe place to live and not everybody is going to be able to be working on abstinence,” Schlather said. “Even people who are not working on abstinence, they also need to be warm and sheltered and fed.”
Dietrich said technically there are no wet shelters in Ithaca. However, she said the Rescue Mission shelter has been much more open about accepting people still using substances than the Red Cross. Dietrich agreed with Schlather, saying the city needs an official shelter for people who aren’t yet ready to quit using substances. She said this is especially important for people coming out of prison, who have a hard time following too many rules and regulations.
“There are a lot of people who would come in from the cold to something with support services if they’re just treated like decent human beings and not made to comply with excessive numbers of rules and regulations,” she said.
Sutherland said many of the current programs in place to help the homeless population require an active effort by participants to get clean and sober and deal with mental health issues.
“Those are issues that many people face and some have lost everything because of it,” he said of addiction and mental illness. “And the only way they’re going to get better is if they choose to and are willing to accept help.”
Programs in place
Aside from the immediate aid provided by the Rescue Mission shelter, Sutherland said there are other safeguards in place to protect the homeless population. When the temperature is below 20 degrees and the shelter is at capacity, he said homeless individuals can talk to DSS about being put up in a hotel for the night.
Sutherland also said DSS has a program where it helps pay for apartments for people living on the street. However, Sutherland said there are multiple requirements to be eligible for the program, and the money DSS provides still falls short of paying for housing in Ithaca.
“The price that DSS is able to offer isn’t enough to afford something in the city of Ithaca,” he said. “And there are individuals who would stay in a location in the Jungle to be close to the food and daily services that are available.”
Dietrich said the Ithaca area has improved its services for the homeless population over the past decade, citing the building of the Chartwell House by Tompkins Community Action, which provides housing for men recovering from alcohol and drug related issues. She said TCA also recently opened another house called the Magnolia House, which houses women recovering from substance abuse.
TCA participates in a program with the Ithaca Housing Authority known as Section 8, Schlather said. Section 8 provides housing vouchers to those who qualify financially for housing assistance. Under the program, people in need of housing won’t pay more than 40 percent of their adjusted monthly income toward rent. However, Schlather said the program is backed up, with a long waiting list.
In addition to these programs, Dietrich said six cottages were recently built in Newfield to provide housing for homeless men, with plans underway to build a dozen more cottages.
Despite all the programs in place, Dietrich said more can be done. She said there is a glaring lack of transitional housing in Ithaca — housing that accommodates inmates recently released from jail. Dietrich said she believes transitional housing could help in reducing the recidivism rate in Ithaca prisons.
“We have a core group of repeat offenders, and I believe with transitional housing… we could reduce that core group,” she said.
She said currently, many inmates end up being housed in the outlying communities around Ithaca. However, she said this approach doesn’t allow inmates to be integrated back into the community.
Schlather said she believes there needs to be increased funding at both the state and federal level to provide additional supportive services to the homeless population.
“We talk a good game about wanting to get people help, but it takes money to be able to build and provide services to people,” she said.
Evan Popp is a freshman journalism major who won’t be going out into the Jungle in this weather. You can email him at [email protected]