Ithaca, N.Y. — As temperatures fall in Ithaca, the problem of homelessness becomes an increasingly urgent one.
To get a sense of the scope of the housing need, The Voice recently interviewed several city representatives and human service professionals in the area.
Turning from the nature of the need to the possibilities for addressing it, the Voice asked these same professionals to weigh in on what they think can be done in the future to address the needs of the city’s homeless.
Here’s what they said:
1 – Sieburg: low-cost housing must come first.
“Ithaca is a small city with some big city problems,” said Dan Sieburg of the Rescue Mission in an recent interview.
Sieburg said that like many larger cities, Ithaca is in desperate need of affordable housing. Specifically, he said there needs to be housing which can be rented on Department of Social Services housing allowances.
“I’m talking like, 400 dollars per month,” Sieburg said. “And it can’t be a terrible place to live.”
Sieburg suggested that the “housing first” model – a model which takes homeless men and women straight from the street and into their own apartments — has the potential to succeed in Ithaca. The model has seen success in cities such as Boston and Seattle.
(The Housing First model has also faced criticism and has been accused of giving rise to slums, e.g., http://blogs.law.harvard.edu/sharamkohan/is-the-housing-first-model-a-national-elusion-or-is-it-the-solution-to-end-homelessness/)
In addition to reducing the number of homeless men and women in the city, Sieburg said the Housing First approach could also be a cost-effective way of addressing the homelessness problem.
“If you think about a shelter stay which equates to, lets say, 50 dollars per night (and I think it’s actually more than that) and if you spend 30 days in a shelter over a month, that a pretty nice apartment.”
Whatever its merits, Sieburg said Housing First can only be implemented if there is low-cost housing to begin with. And this, he said, is something which Ithaca currently lacks.
He cited two key reasons for Ithaca’s lack of low cost housing.
(1) Little incentive for developers.
“It’s the market,” Sieburg said. “Developers are not coming to Ithaca and saying ‘let me build some really low-rent housing for homeless people’; they’re saying ‘let me build housing for college students because I can get over 1000/mo for a single bedroom.’”
Sieburg said that if a developer were build a low-rent housing development, organizations in the area would be ready and able to provide services to homeless renters.
“Who knows?” Sieburg said. “Maybe there’s some developer that says, ‘you know what, I could develop something like that.’ [The Rescue Mission] would partner with them to provide them with the wraparound services of case management, things like that.”
(2) “NIMBYism” (NIMBY= “Not In My Back Yard”)
Sieburg also said that a low-cost development, to be occupied by formerly homeless men and women, is likely to be unwelcome to many city residents.
“NIMBYism is going to exist in any city,” Sieburg said. “But you have to create spaces for people to exist.”
Sieburg also said these spaces need to be centrally located. While there have been attempts to house homeless men and women in rural areas such as Groton and Newfield, the lack of jobs and bus lines in these areas makes them unrealistic options for homeless men and women.
“The strategy has been ‘lets see if we can move someone to Newfield or Groton,’” Sieburg said. “But for a homeless person who has lived in Ithaca their whole life, they’re gonna say ‘I don’t want to live in Groton, there are no jobs there, there’s no bus line to get back to Ithaca.’”
2 – Dietrich: Ithaca needs a Halfway House
Deborah Dietrich, Executive Director of Opportunities, Alternatives and Resources (OAR) of Tompkins County, said that the city needs a halfway house for people who are in recovery or who are returning from prison.
“Right now we’re just ‘warehousing’ people in places like Groton,” Dietrich said, echoing Sieburg’s concerns. “It’s not accessible, and there’s no case-management component. What we need is more halfway or transitional housing in the city.”
Dietrich said that for people returning from prison, it is crucial for their housing to include a social component.
“They don’t just need a room somewhere; they need a social hub,” she said.
Dietrich said that group housing projects such as Carmen Guidi’s Second Wind Cottages project have played an important role – albeit a limited one – in addressing the needs of the city’s homeless.
“It’s performing a much needed function,” she said. “But it’s still very limited.”
Part of the limitation has to do with the size of Second Wind – as of now, only six single-room occupancy cottages have been built. Another limitation is that, like rooming houses in Groton, these Cottages are far from public transit.
“I’m hopeful that we can get more money from HUD [US Department of Housing and Urban Development] to do something like a halfway house,” Dietrich said.
3 – Sutherland: There needs to be more City-Non-profit Collaboration
Contrary to what Dietrich and Sieburg suggested, Ithaca Chief of Staff Kevin Sutherland said that a lack of services, not a lack of resources to build, is the main stumbling block in the effort to address the needs of Ithaca’s homelessness.
“Getting money to build housing is not as much of an issue,” Sutherland said. “The problem is getting programming to go with it.”
Sutherland also said that even if the city was able to secure money to build, the cost of living poses a problem for the economic sustainability of such projects.
“It’s prohibitive of an organization trying to provide a shelter,” Sutherland said. “The land value is so high that [shelters] are not sustainable.”
Sutherland said that it is sometimes hard to know how many homeless people are living in the city — many of them move in and out of temporary housing, and others may only stay in Ithaca for a short time.
Moving forward, Sutherland said there needs to be more collaboration between city officials and non-profit organizations to get clear on the needs of Ithaca’s homeless and to figure out how to best address those needs.
The only movement so far, Sutherland said, has been “occasionally scheduled meetings.”
“This is definitely a conversation that the Homeless and Housing Task Force needs to look at again,” he said.