Ithaca officials consider city-approved homeless encampment

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Officials in Ithaca are looking at new ways to address the city’s homeless encampments. That could include creating one that is city-sanctioned. (Megan Zerez/WSKG)

VESTAL, NY (WSKG)—The Ithaca Common Council is considering a plan to create a city-sanctioned and supervised encampment site.

In a proposal presented last week, a group of housing outreach workers, city leaders and county legislators requested that the city commit four acres of municipal property to host an encampment.

According to the proposal, the Ithaca Dedicated Encampment Site (TIDES) would house up to 50 residents experiencing homelessness.

The number of people living in tent encampments throughout the city has increased over the past five years. While the size of the encampments fluctuates by season, housing advocates say as many as 65 people reside in them each summer.

Moving away from silent acceptance

Nels Bohn, director of Ithaca’s Urban Renewal Agency and one of the proposal’s authors, said the growth of tent camps has coincided with an increase in substance use in the city, as well as rising housing costs.

Bohn said in recent years, the city has approached the encampments with “tacit acceptance.” While officials asked residents in an encampment off the Cayuga Lake Inlet to vacate for a state-led, flood-control project in 2020, the city does not enforce its policy prohibiting campsites on municipal land, nor does it routinely clear the encampments.

“I think the city has weighed in favor, by and large, at not trying to harm an individual who is camping, knowing that they’re going through a rough patch in their life, in most cases,” Bohn told the Common Council’s Planning and Economic Development Committee last week.

But Bohn also admits officials have not taken steps to improve physical conditions at the encampments.

The proposal for TIDES states it would provide ​”a safe, healthy, secure and 24/7 staffed environment” for those experiencing homelessness.

“And it’s particularly an important option when there aren’t enough resources to provide an alternative place for people to live, or provide housing,” Bohn said. “When housing is very expensive in communities, this is an option that gets increasingly embraced.”

Encampments of this sort have become common in West Coast cities, including in Los Angeles, Seattle and San Francisco. Housing advocates nationwide, however, warn that encampments are not an adequate solution to the country’s shortage of affordable housing.

TIDES, the proposal’s authors emphasized, would be a temporary stop for residents on the way to finding permanent housing, with additional supportive services present to aid in that process.

The memo details problems at the encampments, calling them unhealthy for residents, harmful to the environment and disruptive to neighbors. Fires caused by heating and cooking fuels are frequent. The Ithaca Fire Department responded to 31 calls to extinguish fires associated with encampments last year.

The secluded encampments are difficult for first responders to reach in emergencies.

Carmen Guidi, who runs Second Wind Cottages, a transitional housing program in Newfield, said TIDES would be easier to access.

“These people are part of our community, they’re our neighbors,” said Guidi, who helped draft the proposal. “Why shouldn’t they have access to the same response as everyone else?”

“We can meet them where they’re at”

The proposed facility would have 25 cabins as well as campsites, bathrooms, showers, a kitchen and lockers for personal belongings.

The plan also includes a space where case managers, health care workers and other service providers can meet with encampment residents.

Chris Teitelbaum, who runs the shelter at St. John’s Community Services in Ithaca, said some people who live in encampments just aren’t equipped to move indoors. He said that is often because of trauma and mental health concerns.

“So we are talking about a space where, for up to 50 individuals, we can meet them where they’re at,” said Teitelbaum, who also worked on the proposal, “and begin doing that work of reacclimating them to being in an environment with other people in close proximity and able to interact, and come back into the community on both the social aspect and economic aspect.”

Councilwoman Phoebe Brown applauded the plan, but added that any programs to address homelessness should also hear input from people of color.

“Because there are people who may not be in encampments, but they are homeless and they are on the outskirts,” Brown said.

Black residents make up less than 6% of Ithaca’s population, but experience homelessness at a disproportionate rate. During the 2020 Point in Time Count, an annual snapshot of sheltered and unsheltered populations taken over two days each January, 27% of residents experiencing homelessness in the city were Black.

The encampments’ populations, however, remain primarily white.

In response, Teitelbaum said the management at TIDES should reflect the homeless population in Ithaca, so that all feel welcome. A third-party would lease and manage the proposed site if established.

“We want an encampment site that is welcoming to anyone who feels the need to take advantage of that resource to help them get on their way to permanent housing,” he added.

Authors of the proposal suggested three potential city-owned sites for TIDES: property at the end of Cherry Street controlled by the Urban Renewal Agency, a parcel behind Lowes, and the Southwest Park site behind Walmart. The latter, the group stated, is preferred as encampments are already located there.

Acting Mayor Laura Lewis said she would explore the concept further, but expressed concerns about finding a location with water and sewer connections.

“If it could be solved easily, we would have done it before,” Lewis told the committee.

The proposal does not list the cost of constructing and managing the encampment. Members of the working group say they will work with non‐profits to assist with development and operating costs.

The council plans to discuss the proposal further next month.