Jeff Stein contributed reporting to this story.
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Ithaca, N.Y. – The City of Ithaca acknowledges a need for additional housing for the homeless but questions a report saying homelessness is on the rise within the city.
In May, the Tompkins County Office of Human Rights released a report that revealed nine “direct impediments” to fair housing choice within Ithaca, including inadequate services for homeless families. The report also said there has been an increase in the homeless population within the city.
In 2015, the report said, there was a 37-person increase in the number of sheltered homeless in Ithaca. That number was based on a “point-in-time count” that counts the number of homeless people in Ithaca over a 24-hour period during the last week of January.
Ithaca responds to county analysis
The City of Ithaca responded to the report in August: “We disagree with OHR’s analysis of local trends in the sheltered and unsheltered homeless population,” the city responded.
Despite that, the city’s analysis concluded that “additional shelter beds and transitional housing are required.”
The Rescue Mission recently changed its policy for accepting homeless people, which may be leading to at least some of the changes seen in the report, says Lynn Truame, community development planner for the Ithaca Urban Renewal Agency.
“We’re not sure how the Rescue Mission’s changed philosophy is impacting the number of identified homeless,” Truame said.
Nels Bohn, also of the IURA, explained that the Rescue Mission’s new policy may be what accounts for the tracked rise in homelessness.
“The emergency housing shelter on West State Street went from having a range of 7 to 10 people a night to a regular basis of 20 to 30 people a night,” Bohn said.
“Some of that is based on the policies of the operator and a much more welcoming policy under the Rescue Mission’s operations.”
Truame also noted that last winter was particularly cold, saying that may be leading to an increase in the number of identified homeless — rather than an increase in the number of people who are actually in need.
“It calls more attention to who is homeless,” she said of the cold weather. “We may not have seen a big increase in homelessness but they may have come into the system more — we’re trying to understand: Are we seeing a big change? Or are we serving people better?”
Either way, Truame said, the city agreed that more housing is necessary to give the homeless permanent places to live.
“We’re getting more people in temporary housing, at least, and what we really need is more permanent housing,” she said.
“If those temporary slots are being filled more right now for some reason — like the bad winter — it’s good … We need more information about that one; but it’s definitely on our radar.”
Report’s author agrees with difficulty of measuring homeless population
Tompkins County Director of Human Rights Karen Baer addressed the report in an e-mail to the Ithaca Voice.
Baer said that, in the research and data collection portion of the report, “on more than one occasion, IURA staff successfully persuaded OHR staff to omit various observations due to their irrelevance or non-persuasive nature.”
“In the project’s final stages,” Baer added, “every single proposed impediment was reviewed by IURA staff. Although IURA voiced some disagreement with a couple of findings, OHR resisted further influence in an effort to uphold the independent and authentic integrity of the final product.”
Counting the homeless population in Ithaca is a difficult task, Baer agreed.
“Unfortunately, at this point, the only feasible way to measure homelessness is to document the demand for shelters and other types of transitional housing,” Baer wrote in an e-mail.
“The purpose of the [report] was to make observations and propose possible impediments to fair housing choice – not to hypothesize whether, in fact, those 37 persons were previously homeless or not,” she added.
“Rather than being distracted by such an elusive detail, we as a community would do better to focus on trying to resolve the problem that shelter demands seem to be consistently greater than our fluctuating bed capacities.”
What can be done?
Kathy Schlather, who chairs the Tompkins County Human Service Coalition’s “Continuum of Care” network, a coalition of public, private, and non-profit partners that seek to end homelessness in Tompkins County, also called attention to the difficulty of counting the homeless.
“The numbers reflect a combination of factors – the weather, which agencies participate in the count, and changes in policies at a local or state level are all factors,” she said. “It can vary from year-to-year.”
The City proposed a series of actions to combat homelessness in their response to the report, including exploring the possibility of creating a new emergency shelter “specifically to address the needs to homeless families with children.”
Other proposals included the continuance of funding for programs that house the homeless and exploring a possible “pilot program to address housing instability for families with elementary school aged children.”
To combat the issue, the report says, the City should consider efforts to “recruit landlords willing to work with those who are homeless to transition to stable housing;” “provide a wider range of housing options for people with mental illness and substance abuse issues without concentrating such populations;” and “encourage scattered site housing with support services available.”
The report also recommends “addressing housing issues that marginalize the homeless by continuing to seek additional funding and assist in the provision of services for the homeless, including emergency shelter space, transitional housing, and corresponding supportive services, by directing grants to the agencies that provide these services.”
“To end homelessness, it truly has to be a joint effort,” said Schlather in an e-mail to the Ithaca Voice. ”The non-profits cannot do it all.”
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