A Fresh Start

Carmen Guidi, a Newfield business owner, has offered area homeless men a place to live at his Second Wind Cottages. 

About five miles south of Ithaca, visible behind Guidi’s Collision Shop on the east side of Route 13 and just before the hamlet of Newfield, is a row of six neat, tidy, identical cottages in the last stages of completion. On any given day, there are varying degrees of activity, with volunteers operating backhoes or putting up siding, utility company trucks rolling in with spools of heavy wire, or the sound of saws and hammering echoing across the valley leading down to the city of Ithaca. Situated on seven acres of land that was completely vacant until September of this year, the structures are part of an intriguing, ambitious and all-volunteer project to provide individual housing units to homeless men. The banners at the entrance announce the structures as “Second Wind Cottages – Homes and Hope for the Homeless.”

The row of 16-foot by 20-foot bungalows is part of a larger vision of Carmen Guidi, a homeless advocate, business owner, and Newfield native. Ultimately, the plan is for there to be up to 12 more houses, a community building and a social worker on the location. It’s all conceived to provide transitional housing and support, away from stresses and temptations, for homeless men. The recent tragedy in the Jungle, Ithaca’s unofficial homeless encampment, has made the need for an available safe haven for men looking to break out of the precarious and often dangerous cycle of life on the streets especially vivid.

Carmen Guidi is a lean, compact 48-year-old with a firm handshake and an open, sincere face. His body shop, which he opened with his father in 1988, thrives in no small part on his own reputation for being absolutely, scrupulously straight with customers. A man of obvious deep religious feeling, the genuineness of his devotion to the Second Wind project and to helping homeless people inspires people to pitch in.

He traces his own inspiration for this ambitious venture to his experience on a mission he undertook in Haiti in 2010. Coming back to Newfield, he began to visit and work with homeless people locally, spending more and more time in Ithaca’s ‘Jungle’ behind the Route 13 shopping centers. “I couldn’t just see how hard some people were living and not do something,” he said.

The Jungle is an informal homeless community located on a wedge of land west of Cecil Malone Drive, bordered by the Norfolk Southern railroad tracks and a dead-end, weed-choked remnant of the relief channel that was dredged out and connected to the inlet back when that part of the city was home to warehouses, industry, lumber yards, and railroad sheds. The Jungle itself has been continuously inhabited by what we now call homeless people for at least 100 years, but it’s part of a side of Ithaca that is far older. This area of the city, along the inlet and stretching out toward the lake, while once a center of industry and commerce, was also once called ‘the Rhine’, and was the home of poor families, laborers, squatters and other dispossessed and marginalized citizens of Ithaca. Dirty, smoky, and crowded, the Rhine’s makeshift dwellings were the source of typhoid outbreaks and disturbances of the peace until the Department of Public Works evicted the residents and burned all the shacks in 1927. Within sight of the gleaming buildings of the colleges on the hills, the Jungle remains as a vestige of the Other Ithaca, that many people never see.

It is instructive to watch a guided tour of the Jungle with Carmen Guidi on YouTube. To hear it described as a community of tents is to conjure an image of neat campsites with crisp, taut North Face tents. It is nothing like that. It is more about duct tape and tarps and cobbled-together milk crates and litter. The tents are small and cramped and crowded. The residents are not just homeless men. Families live here, families who have run out of options. And as the weather has turned bitter cold and snowy in recent weeks, the places, even with portable propane heaters, seem hardly capable of keeping people warm.

Seeing the Jungle on his return from Haiti was an eye-opening experience for Guidi, and after the suicide of a friend and Jungle resident, he was moved to act. “The experience of trying to get assistance is so frustrating and difficult that many people feel trapped,” he said. “Anybody, with a few bad breaks, could find themselves in this situation. It’s overwhelming for people with addiction or mental health issues. I felt so strongly that there needs to be a way to provide a safe sanctuary for a person to be able to break out of the cycle and take some time to piece their life together.”

As it happened, there were seven acres of level, vacant land behind Guidi’s Collision Shop. Just as fortuitously, it is located in Newfield, which has no zoning regulations, making construction of 18 small cottages on a relatively small parcel considerably more feasible. It’s perhaps also worth mentioning that the land is perched high up on the west side of the valley leading south out of Ithaca and has a spectacular, peaceful view looking north toward the city.

But land and a dream do not a housing compound make. As the project has taken shape, Guidi has shepherded and guided the efforts of literally hundreds of volunteers and contributors toward making Second Wind a reality. Dozens of Cornell and IC students have showed up on Saturdays. Guidi has donated the land and considerable money, and the project has become a full-time job, but since September there has been a constant stream of volunteers whose time, skills and energy have resulted in six cottages nearing completion. Community Faith Partners has raised over $80,000. Discounts and contributions from businesses, professional services and contractors have made it a truly community effort.

The buildings themselves, two of which are already inhabited (the others are near completion), are snug, warm and light-filled, with windows on all four sides. They consist of a single room, studio-style living area, with a fully equipped kitchen, space for a bed, and a separate bathroom. Fresh and new, each unit has its own septic system and is serviced by Newfield’s town water system. The cottages are identical, even down to the color of the siding. A group of sophomores in Cornell Professor Dan Krall’s landscape architecture program did a landscape design for the Second Wind Cottages site for their final project of this semester, elements of which will ultimately be used as an aesthetic flourish once the compound is complete.

Like many Ithacans, Dave Reed and his wife were lured to Ithaca from Hollywood, California years ago by Cornell. Reed’s story is not unlike many men who find themselves homeless. Alcohol, addiction, stints of rehab, and the incremental loss of the things you have until there’s almost nothing left. He wound up living in the Jungle. Now a resident in Second Wind Cottage number one, he said, “I couldn’t be happier. An issue for me, and for a lot of guys in the Jungle, was constant temptation. My demon was alcohol and it’s hard to get out if it’s always around. Even in different places I’d go, there was often trouble. Having a place like this,” he smiled, gesturing to the four walls of the cottage, “is a life-saver.”

The name “Second Wind” literally came to one of the residents, Tom Persun, in a dream as the project was in the planning stages. It captures the theme of giving people a chance to “hit the reset button” and start over, according to Guidi. Persun, a former Jungle resident, works at the Syracuse Rescue Mission in Ithaca and will occupy a Second Wind cottage. He, like several other future residents of the cottages, has pitched in himself to make the project a reality.

Guidi is working out the guidelines for living in the cottages. Reed describes them as follows: “No drinking, no drugs, be courteous, and no overnight guests.” These rules, simple as they are, can rankle with men who have been very independent out in the world, according to Reed, but, “It’s all part of that idea of slowing down, and taking time to catch your breath without a lot of distractions,” he said. “I have no problem with them whatsoever.”

There has been a certain amount of negative commentary within Newfield about the idea of establishing a community of homeless men within the town, though none directly to Guidi. As a life-long Newfield resident and business-owner, he is sensitive to the location of the project. “These guys are people who need a helping hand,” he said. “They’re not coming here to make trouble.”

To many of the volunteers, Second Wind is an opportunity to make a real difference for people in genuine need. Tom Howarth, an Ithaca remodeling contractor, has been working on the cottages four to five hours a day, for free, these past three weeks, and his expertise has been invaluable in finishing the interiors of the houses. His brother, who died in February 2012, was caught in the cycle of drugs and alcohol, rehab, jail, group homes and the streets that is familiar to many homeless men. “I think maybe if he’d had a place like these homes, it might have saved him, “ said Howarth. “People, not just the homeless, need a quiet place to retreat to. It’s hard to maintain a sense of dignity sometimes out there. It can just overwhelm a person.”

Newfield pastor and elementary school teacher Scott Moseley came to a realization about the difficulties of homelessness through his church. “Before this year I had never really gotten involved with the homeless until one man came to our church I got to know him, and he invited me to his place,” he said. “He had a tarp overhead and a ragged tent he used only as a ground cover and he cooked out of a can and got his water from the local stream. It was summer, and I thought it was kind of an adventure. Two days later it poured, and I was home and dry. He was not. The man is older than I am, so I had to do something. The story goes on, but I hooked up with Carmen Guidi and know when the cottages are done he will have access to one. There is still plenty of work to do but this is a start.”

Moseley has been a regular volunteer on the project. “I guess I would say that I know in my own life I made some decisions and I got stuck. If it wasn’t for others I wouldn’t be where I am today. I just can’t think of a better use of my time and finances than to invest in people. I’m so grateful that people invested their time and money in me.”

Last month’s tragic death of 53-year-old Richard Sherman, after suffering burns when his tent caught fire in the Jungle, brought the difficult and vulnerable nature of Jungle life to the front of local consciousness again. Known as a humble and caring man, Sherman was well known and well liked in the homeless community, and had lived off and on in the Jungle for years. Carmen Guidi considered him a friend. “When you get right down to it, they don’t want to live like that,” said Guidi. “He has a little Coleman stove in there to keep warm. I would imagine he was sitting or taking a nap, I don’t know. Something happened, whether it tipped over.” Sherman was scheduled to come out to Newfield and help paint one of the Second Wind Cottages last Saturday.

While there are no rules in the Jungle, such freedom comes at a cost. Since 2011, Ithaca Police have responded to 197 calls to the Jungle, including 49 for hospitalization, 43 were for verbal or physical disputes, 21 for intoxication, 10 for weapons, and three for attempted arson, according to the Ithaca Police Department.

Mayor Svante Myrick, who experienced homelessness himself growing up, has said that in light of this recent tragedy he will work with every human service agency, shelter provider, and faith-based organization to provide alternatives for people sleeping in the cold at the Jungle. The mayor said in a statement following Sherman’s death, “It is my hope that this will serve as a clarion call to our community. It’s time that we work with human service agencies, the community of faith, and private individuals to clear the Jungle and keep it clear. A mythology surrounds the Jungle: many of us believe it is a romantic encampment for those seeking to live peaceably and freely away from society. But the reality is something entirely different. The majority of those living in the Jungle are in the throes of substance addiction or mental illness. So I will work with every human service agency, shelter provider, and faith based organization to provide alternatives for these people sleeping in the cold.”

Myrick specifically called for community support of the Second Wind Cottages in his statement.

Now that winter is here in full force, the difficulty of living outdoors is particularly acute. “There’s people that have to live out in this weather,” said Guidi. “They can’t go in somewhere to get warm. Just the other night I was putting wood on my fire; it was 80 degrees in my house, and it was 19 outside, with a wind chill factor of probably two degrees. They have to live in that.”

“Life isn’t easy,” Guidi said. “People deal with life in different ways. Some people turn to alcohol, some people turn to drugs, some people turn to eating, some people turn to other things. We have to deal with it the best we can. I’m just overwhelmed and humbled by the volunteers who have made all of this happen.”

Contributions of all kinds will keep being needed as the project continues to move toward becoming a reality. Most of the work happens on the weekends. Information about donating or generally about Second Wind Cottages can be found at its website: www.secondwindcottages.org. •

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