The “Jungle,” Ithaca’s decades-old unsanctioned homeless encampment has long been like the weather: everybody talks about it, but nobody does anything about it. Perhaps the pieces are finally coming together for concrete steps to be taken to address what everyone involved characterizes as “a sensitive issue.” At least that was the guardedly optimistic sense coming out of the July 20 meeting of Ithaca Common Council’s Planning and Economic Development Committee meeting.
Even though it was a non-voting item on the agenda, there were members of the public present to provide their input. Two individuals stressed the importance of not criminalizing homelessness by creating an approved encampment and then having law enforcement actively confront those who do not move into the approved location.
A resident of Ithaca’s West End stressed the urgent need for action, citing incidents of public urination and defecation, assaults, burglaries, home invasions, and a noticeable increase in the rat population that are impacting their neighborhood, which they linked to the expansion of The Jungle.
Nels Bohn, director of the Ithaca Urban Renewal Agency (IURA) presented a memo to the committee outlining seven possible next steps the City could take in addressing what many see as Ithaca’s growing homelessness problem:
- Approve issuance of a Request For Proposal (RFP) for a sanctioned encampment on specified City lands and request Tompkins County participation to jointly develop a funding model to pay for the encampment;
- Approve issuance of a Request For Expression Of Interest (RFEI) inviting a variety of proposals to address chronic homelessness, including unsanctioned encampments, and other needs addressed in a recent assessment;
- Appoint a working group charged with developing a proposed city policy regarding encampments on city property;
- Clarify priority uses for the former SW Park area and other City land used by unsanctioned encampments;
- Authorize a feasibility study of a solar array installation at SW Park, excepting out about 4 acres for facilities serving unhoused persons;
- Direct city staff to develop an interim policy focused on prevention of the spread of unsanctioned encampments to previously uninhabited City properties; or
- Request Tompkins County to work with the City and Continuum of Care to explore strategies to increase access to emergency shelter housing for those in unsanctioned encampments who have been unable to successfully navigate, for one reason or another, the Department of Social Services application process.
Discussion of the possible next step quickly focused on the need for action sooner rather than later. An apparent consensus grew that the City’s tacit acceptance of illegal camping by the homeless on public and even private land, when combined with the City’s service-rich environment, was leading to an increase in the homeless population and illegal behavior seemingly linked to this increase.
Ithaca Acting Mayor Laura Lewis acknowledged that, “the Tacit acceptance policy is not…working, it is not helpful to the city, it is not helpful to unhoused residents, it is not helpful to the community at large, and does not address some of the issues that contribute to the growing homeless encampments.”
City Alderperson Cynthia Brock noted the “pressure tacit acceptance was placing on City personnel, including police officer, firefighters, building department personnel,” and others, who are unsure of what they could or should do.
No one disputed that other efforts to provide options to residents of “The Jungle,” including access to affordable housing at the Arthaus project on Cherry Street, had fallen short of expectations. City Alderperson George McGonigal acknowledged: “Arthaus is not a safe place right now.”
The need for speed quickly focused attention on the first option from Bohn’s memo: an RFP and basing it on The Ithaca Designated Encampment Site (TIDES) proposal. The TIDES plan was proposed by a Volunteer Working Group consisting of Brock and McGonigal from Ithaca’s Common Council, Bohn of the IURA, Rich John and Travis Brooks of the Tompkins County Legislature, Frank Kruppa of the Tompkins County Department of Health, Chris Teitelbaum of St. John’s Community Services (the agency in the County that shelters people experiencing homelessness), Carmen Guidi of Second Wind Cottages (a Newfield-based not-for-profit that provides housing for the homeless), and Jerry Dietz of CSP Management and Michael Carpenter who has served on the Enfield Planning Board, both of whom own property on Cherry Street.
The TIDES proposal foresees a total cost for construction of an encampment at just over $1 million, with just over $600,000 in annual staffing costs. The almost $2 million price tag raised eyebrows and concerns. However, as Teitelbaum noted, “local businesses and residents in Ithaca’s West End are already paying a hidden tax” by having to deal with issues arising from problems stemming from The Jungle.
Guidi, acknowledged for his laudable past efforts on behalf of the homeless and his expertise in dealing with the issue, noted that “these people have been living on this land for years and years and years, and nothing has ever been done. Now we want to try to do something that can improve their lives and get them more help…. Just pull the trigger. They're there. You’re obviously not going to remove them, so let's make [life] better for them.”
Acting Mayor Lewis seemed to guardedly agree: “Right now we may be at a nexus point. We may have the right constellation of people in our community to really take some concrete steps.”
The next one of those steps is for the committee to present the issue to the full Common Council.