City mulls various options to address homelessness as weather warms

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ITHACA, NY—Familiar tent encampments are gradually starting to reappear around Ithaca, an annual accompaniment to global warming as the area’s homeless population migrates out after needing shelter for the winter.

In response to growing complaints over the past year about campsites moving closer to businesses and other residences, and in particular some confrontations between those living in campsites or tents and residents of Nate’s Floral Estates mobile home park in the summer and in the fall, the city of Ithaca grapples with how best to address the homeless population this year.

A report formulated and written by the Ithaca Urban Renewal Agency earlier this year gave a glimpse of what could be on the table for the city, although no final plan has been chosen. The draft report was presented to the Homelessness and Housing Task Force by IURA Director Nels Bohn in February.

Potential Strategies

The draft report makes it clear that the city does not view encampments as a sustainable way for homeless people to live, but largely blames its own housing situation for the problem – calling the existence of encampments an “inability to make homelessness rare, brief and non-recurrent. He lists four strategies often employed when managing encampments (purely as a list, not as possibilities): clearance with little or no occupant support, clearance with occupant support, tacit acceptance (which has been the strategy of ‘Ithaca until now) and formal sanction. encampments.

Clearing camps, even with supports in place, is minimized by the report. Such a strategy was recently employed by New York City Mayor Eric Adams, with at least some level of backlash. Moral arguments aside, the report argues that such a move would likely only displace residents and form encampments at another site. Not to mention that such an undertaking is outside the jurisdiction and expertise of the agencies that would likely be responsible for it, which are listed as the city’s Department of Public Works.

“All in all, a smarter use of city resources, where possible, is to invest in community solutions to expand available low-barrier shelter beds on terms acceptable to those occupying the encampments,” indicates the report.

Public health is presented as one of the primary concerns of the report, and some concerns exist in the encampment of their own. For example, in “the jungle”, while the coronavirus has not had an outsized impact, other infections can be transmitted quickly. Fires to radiators or cooking utensils are fairly common, and undisposed trash can frequently attract rodents.

Much of the city’s homeless population remains alone, but a segment of them has increasingly caused problems for some businesses in the West End and near “the jungle”, the de facto encampment of the homeless. -shelter behind the big box stores along Highway 13, which regularly report robberies blamed on the homeless. In hot weather, the homeless population has slowly increased in recent years, likely spurred by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the economy and the ability of some facilities to house people, as well as by overriding factors of Ithaca’s limited affordable housing market. .

In the words of the report itself: “Encampments are a consequence of the housing crisis associated with poverty, mental illness, substance abuse and racial inequality, and represent a gap in the response system to homelessness in the community, although the system works well to connect most homeless people with services and housing.

But for the past six months or so, weather and state law have made it a much less visible problem. Once the cold weather sets in, New York State’s Code Blue policy states that people without homes are offered shelter once the temperature drops below freezing, either in the shelter. emergency (the St. John’s Community Services building on West State Street) or at a nearby hotel. . This policy ends on April 15.

Understand “the jungle”

The report indicates a desire to apply anti-camping policies in certain “high-sensitivity areas”, which it identifies as: public parks, designated natural areas, townships, areas targeted for redevelopment; locations near homes, schools, or business entrances; recreational trails; riparian areas (where sanitation facilities are not available); areas that “interfere with municipal operations and maintenance; » places that prevent public use of city lands and areas marked against trespassing.

According to the theory set out in the draft report, the city’s goals of keeping these areas free of encampments can be achieved through clear communication between the city and those affected, including the homeless population, outreach workers and more. Again.

Southwest Park, the official name of the area where “the jungle” is located, is listed as a low-sensitivity area, in that enforcement would not be a high priority for the city until further action is taken. mitigation will not be in place, namely that “realistic housing alternatives are available to be offered to people living in an unprotected settlement.

One idea encouraged by the report is to use an “encampment advocacy agency” to work collaboratively with encampment residents and city officials and can navigate between the two, particularly regarding security issues. public. One suggestion from the report is that such an agency could provide a bathroom or hand-washing facility close to the camp, in addition to regularly removing litter.

“The city’s approach to enforcement against encampments on city land must be strategic and guided by a realistic understanding of the political will, cost and resources required for enforcement and clearance,” states the report, making it clear that the plans made are not final, but just under consideration. “In addition, a demined area is often reconstituted as a camp site in a few months without vigilance. It is not wise to adopt a policy that will not be applied on the ground.

Finally, the report casts the current moment as an opportunity for change: with the extra money from the U.S. stimulus package, the city of Ithaca and Tompkins County stand to take advantage of the money (and any additional funding they can obtain) to invest in “facilities and services” to build on the systems already in place to help the homeless population. In terms of procedure, a Request for Expression of Interest is suggested to gauge interest in local agencies and determine the type of services available.

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