Tammy Boudah has worked on the street outreach team for Burlington, Vt. for 11 years, offering assistance to community members in need. She said there is one woman who is homeless and has mental health issues who she’s been working with for about 10 years.
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Despite Boudah’s efforts, this woman has consistently rejected treatment and assistance of any kind — until recently.
“She refuses anything anybody offers her, and then the other day she asked me for a pair of boots,” Boudah said. “It sounds really simple … but I know she never takes anything from anybody, so it was a huge pay off for her.”
Helping a homeless woman get a pair of boots is just one example of what Boudah says has been a very successful program in Burlington for all involved — the outreach team, the people in need, the police and the community at large.
Ithaca Common Council member Graham Kerslick said the City of Ithaca has studied Burlington’s model and is now looking to implement its own program.
Boudah said Burlington’s street outreach team, which is employed through the Howard Center, started about 14 years ago with a single worker. The impact quickly became visible, she said.
People connected to the services they needed, clients felt better served, and local merchants felt less threatened. Boudah said the outreach team, which now includes six members, works with a wide range of people in need, from the homeless, to substance abusers, to people who are suicidal.
“We were formed to address behaviors that were occurring that were concerning but not necessarily criminal,” Boudah said. “And at that time the only avenue was to call the police, which was not very helpful for the person. It also wasn’t very fair to the police officer because they’ve got other things they’re trying to do.”
At the Feb. 18 meeting of the City Administration Committee meeting, the committee approved of hiring a community outreach worker who will have an on-street presence in the downtown business district to assist with providing social services.
According to the meeting agenda, there is currently $50,000 in funds available to hire such a worker this year. The City of Ithaca and Tompkins County will each contribute $20,000, and the Downtown Ithaca Alliance will provide an additional $10,000. The outreach worker will not be a city worker; instead, the Family and Children’s Service of Ithaca will house the position.
Common Council member Graham Kerslick said having such a role in the city will be important as downtown Ithaca continues to develop.
“Hopefully, the Commons will be more attractive once construction is finished, there’ll be a lot more people coming into the downtown area,” Kerslick said. “I think it’s important to recognize that can change the mix of people down there … and they may not know Ithaca as well as people who have lived here a long time in terms of the services and support available for people.”
Kerslick said the Ithaca Police Department is in full support of this program, and having a community outreach worker in the downtown area will supplement the Community Action Team approved last year. For that program, police officers will be assigned to specific neighborhoods and develop a presence and relationship with the community.
Once the worker is hired, Kerslick said, the next important step would be to create publicity around the new position so people know how to use the service. He said that, ideally, there would be a phone number people can call if they’re concerned about something that would connect straight to the position.
Boudah said that at the outset of the Burlington program, word of mouth was the biggest factor for spreading the news of the outreach worker.
“We’ve been here for a long time, so we’ve gone around and we’ve introduced ourselves,” Boudah said. “I think every merchant and pretty much every other service provider in the city has a card with our number on it. A lot of the clients have our card, and refer other people.”
Kerslick said the position wouldn’t be as much of a patrol as it would be a community presence, with a range that includes the Commons, the State Street corridor and down to the west end.
“This is definitely somebody that will be on the street as opposed to being in an office,” Kerslick said.
If the first outreach worker is successful in the downtown area and proves to be useful to the Ithaca community, Kerslick said the program will expand.