ITHACA, NY -- Each summer, extreme heat and weather present Ithaca’s unhoused population with a host of challenges. As outreach organizations transition back to more normal operations this summer amid improving pandemic conditions, new obstacles have reared themselves — for both the organizations and those they serve.
Many unhoused Ithacans live in the area colloquially termed “The Jungle,” an encampment which stretches from behind Lowe’s to behind Burger King on South Meadow Street. With the summer bringing the end of the Code Blue policy — which guarantees shelter for individuals when temperatures reach below freezing — the population in the homeless encampment grows each year in mid-April and through the summer.
A collection of outreach organizations in Tompkins County such as Second Wind Cottages, Salvation Army and Opportunities, Alternatives & Resources (OAR) of Tompkins County — among tens of others — provide materials and services to these individuals throughout the year.
As expected, the changing seasons come with changes in materials needed in the encampment. While food, water, healthcare, and housing services remain constant throughout the year, the summer heat requires a more vigorous focus on sanitation and hygiene services.
“During the summer, the bugs are terrible, so there's a lot of bug spray,” Carmen Guidi, Founder and Acting Director of Second Wind Cottages said. “There's also a lot of environment control because in the summer we have to deal with rats and control other stuff like that.”
Staying dry during the summer months is a major problem for Jungle residents. The wet conditions, generated by the onslaught of rain and constant humidity, exacerbates health problems and disease in the encampment.
The copious amount of rainfall this summer has caused flooding in many parts of the encampment, only worsening the wet conditions. According to Richard Rivera, who spends time in the Jungle working with OAR and Ultimate Reentry Opportunity, individuals are in great need of tarps, tents, dry clothes, socks and underwear.
“These areas have become flooded over the last couple of weeks because of the rains, so we see an uptick in foot rot and other diseases that can be prevented with dry clothes and just basic hygiene,” he said. “...They need tents because they break because of the rain — the wind is strong, branches fall on them and break them.”
Even before the warm weather hit, however, there has been an increased focus on sanitation services in the Jungle due to COVID. When the pandemic hit, many of the agencies invested resources into infrastructure to help with hygiene. For example, Second Wind Cottages brought Port-a-Johns and handwashing stations to the encampment, which have remained in place.
“There was a lot of money different agencies put into different things, especially some for sanitary reasons,” Guidi said. “COVID really amplified the outreach in a lot of those areas and there's still those items that are in place.”
To accommodate public health restrictions and guidelines, many organizations adapted their outreach approach during the earlier months of the pandemic. Rather than having individuals come to them for services, the Salvation Army, like others, expanded its delivery model to encourage people to shelter in place and adhere to social distancing recommendations. While the organization continues its outreach efforts, it has started to transition back to its normal operations, which puts more of an “onus on people to take initiative.”
“During the pandemic we shifted to a model of more outreach—going out and encouraging people to shelter in place, bringing food and services to them,” Lyle said. “We still do outreach but what we are trying to do is get people to come do those things themselves. We are trying to encourage people to come back on site, and move back to a model where people can feel comfortable but also take the initiative to do some of the things that they can do now that are kind of shifting back to what was closer to pre-pandemic.”
According to Lyle, having the individuals come on site facilitates many of the services the organization offers. When helping individuals search for housing and fill out forms, for example, it is “much easier” to sit down in front of a computer with an individual rather than looking at the small screen of a phone.
Another reason organizations are pushing for the return to on-site services is because it offers a sense of community and provides a space for interpersonal interactions.
“I want to encourage people to experience community at Salvation Army, Loaves and Fishes, and really all of the other places,” Lyle said. “So getting people interacting with other people and not just being kind of cloistered in your own setting in the Jungle. It's also very good for somebody, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, to come into a situation where there's other people around.”
Despite these benefits, Rivera cites many downfalls to a return to this pre-pandemic model.
“As institutions begin to open up, they are demanding that the individual assumes responsibility and go there, which is really problematic,” he said. “The reason why this population exists is because the individuals that formed this population are individuals who, in general, have trouble accessing places — they'll get lost just walking out of the Jungle.”
The transition back to this pre-pandemic model of outreach — with its emphasis on on-site services rather than scheduled deliveries — has proven difficult for the outreach organizations, as well.
“After a full year of doing things one way, trying to transition back is a challenge,” Lyle said. We almost have to retrain or reprogram people again to do the things that they can do for themselves, and come on out and meet us.”
Amid these challenges, the organizations in the area remain committed to serving the unhoused populations and solving not only the recurring “complex issues” that face these individuals, but also that have been born from this state of transition back to normalcy.
“There's a collaboration of agencies working together for the same cause, which is great because you can call on different people for different things at different times,” Guidi said. “It's really encouraging to see that.”
Faith Fisher is a reporter from The Cornell Daily Sun working on The Sun's inaugural summer fellowship at The Ithaca Times.