Ithaca, N.Y. — The winter of 2014/15 has broken several weather records according to the Northeast Regional Climate Center, including: the most sub-zero days; the longest streak of sub-freezing temperatures since 1945; and the coldest February ever in Ithaca’s 122 years of record-keeping.

The bitterly cold weather presents an obvious danger to Ithaca’s homeless population. The Ithaca Voice spoke with Dan Sieburg, chief program officer of the Ithaca Rescue Mission, and Kevin Sutherland, Ithaca City chief of staff to better understand Ithaca’s homeless population and what is being done for them this winter.

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1 — What dangers does cold weather present?
2 — Where can they go?
3 — Do more people seek out the shelter in the winter?/strong>
4 – How does Ithaca compare to other cities in New York?
5 – How can you help? 
6 – How difficult is it to transition out of homelessness?

(Did we miss your question? If so, email me at jstein@ithacavoice.com.)

1 — What dangers does cold weather present for the homeless?

Sieburg said some of the biggest concerns he has for the homeless during the winter include frostbite, hypothermia and those with mental health issues who may not be able to think clearly in life-threatening situations.

He said, on average, the homeless die 30 years sooner than the general population, which correlates with people suffering from mental issues, who tend to die 25 years younger than the general population.

“Literally living out on the street takes years off of your life in a drastic way,” Sieburg said. “When you are outside on the streets you are in danger of the elements, in danger of people that may want to do harm. There’s just no safety or protection out there.”

Sieburg said that because of the dangers and health risks of living outside, the city’s decision to clear the Jungle encampment behind Wegman’s was a good one.

2 — Where can they go?

The Ithaca Rescue Mission, which was previously the Red Cross Friendship Center until March 2014, has 20 emergency shelter beds and 15 single rooms available to those in need, in addition to a food pantry, free coffee, free WiFi and access to case workers who can assist them with getting back on track.

Sieburg said although they prefer those in need to use shelter beds for no longer than a month, they handle each client on a case-by-case basis.

“People come with any number of circumstances and barriers that may prevent them from moving into permanent housing quickly,” Sieburg said. “If somebody came to us and clearly they have some mental health issues … we can look at that person, assess where they’re at and realize pretty quickly they’re not going to be able to gain a full-time employment job where they’re going to be able to pay their rent.”

The Rescue Mission receives food for the pantry from grants, food banks and donations from local businesses, churches and volunteer groups.

Another local food pantry option is Loaves and Fishes at St. John’s Episcopal Church, where free meals are offered Monday, Wednesday and Friday from noon to 1 p.m. and Tuesday and Thursday from 5:30–6:30 p.m.

Sutherland said there is a state program that allows the homeless to seek out select hotels in Ithaca during “emergency” temperatures — 20 degrees or lower — and request a room. The Department of Social Services then foots the bill.

Sieburg said pride can sometimes make it difficult to get some off of the street.

“We live in New York State, which — and this country, really — puts a high level of importance on individual self-determination, and so it’s hard to force or mandate anyone to come in off the street even in dire situations,” Sieburg said.

3 — Do more people seek out the shelter in the winter?

The Rescue Mission saw fewer people in need coming to seek help in January and February. Sieburg said this may be because family, friends and acquaintances have more compassion when they know the weather is cold and allow them to stay longer.

Sieburg said the Rescue Mission saw an influx at the end of the last summer after the city’s efforts to close down the Jungle, which sent more people to the shelter facility.

He also said that compassion and patience from friends and acquaintances may run out when the weather gets warmer.

Even with the lower numbers, Sieburg said the Rescue Mission usually fills all of its beds each night, mostly with people who have already been there for a while.

Sutherland said there were very few homeless people staying outside this winter that he knew of because of the extreme cold.

4 — How does Ithaca compare to other cities in New York?

The Rescue Mission also operates in Syracuse, Binghamton and Auburn. Sieburg said of the four locations, Ithaca by far has the hardest housing market for low-income individuals.

“It’s really important in communities to have very low-income housing, something that’s like $350–400 a month where somebody could kind of get back on their feet and save a little bit of their funds,” Sieburg said.

He said Ithaca tends to have such a high rate for single apartments that it’s not uncommon for the DSS to refer people to nearby areas such as Groton. Although housing may be cheaper in outlying areas, Sieburg said this then creates transportation issues for accessing jobs, family, friends and services in Ithaca.

Sieburg said Syracuse has a larger housing stock, and the Rescue Mission has purchased a few foreclosed properties to turn them into low-income housing options. He said Binghamton also has a better housing stock, and $400/month rent options can be found. In Auburn the Rescue Mission works with the local housing authority to approve housing for those in need, particularly women and children.

Sieburg said the Rescue Mission is hoping to partner with developers and community service organizations to create more low-income housing options, which they have done in Syracuse and Auburn. This can be difficult, he said, because developers can make three times as much on college apartments over low-income housing. Sieburg said the effort to create more low-income housing will mostly be on the shoulders of non-profits like the Rescue Mission.

5 — How can you help?

Sutherland said citizens who want to help can volunteer at local nonprofits like Loaves and Fishes.

Sieburg said he has never known a homeless shelter that does not run into deficits. He said generous monetary donations are always in need.

“Those dollars go to really helping somebody to put their life back together,” Sieburg said. “There’s a lot of great community service organizations in the community of Ithaca that are doing really good things for people. I would just encourage people to be generous and continue to give wherever they feel called to give.”

6 — How difficult is it to transition out of homelessness?

Sieburg says no one plan works for every person who comes through the Rescue Mission’s doors. He said most jobs available to the homeless are minimum wage, which makes it difficult for them to save up enough money to afford deposits on an apartment and then regular rent.

Some of the most standout cases at the Rescue Mission, Sieburg said, are when single mothers come in with their children.

“A single mom with one or two kids, maybe doesn’t have a ton of family support, maybe doesn’t have the education that would equip her to get a good paying job — what options are available to her?” Sieburg said. “If minimum wage is all she can get, imagine how many hours she would have to work and find child care for her kids, just to afford a two bedroom apartment in Ithaca. You see the obstacles they’re up against.”

Sieburg said everyone who stays at the rescue mission is required to go to the DSS within 24 to 48 hours to access temporary assistance.

Sutherland said reaching out for assistance is a necessary step.

“I really care about this issue,” he said. “I also believe that people who live in our community need to contribute to our community. If there are people out there who need assistance they need to reach out.”


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