Editor’s Note: The following is Part I of “Spotlight: The crisis of Ithaca’s homeless,” The Ithaca Voice’s five-part series for “Spotlight on Ithaca.”

Read the introduction to the series here.

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ITHACA, N.Y. — Jon Esperson had nowhere to go.

There were no beds available at Ithaca’s emergency homeless shelter. Esperson’s application for housing assistance was tied up in red tape. None of his friends knew of an open couch.

And Esperson, a Massachusetts native who has lived in Ithaca since the early 2000’s, knew a cold night was coming.

Esperson found a planter behind Center Ithaca located just below a heating vent. That would take the sting out of a biting wind — for one night, at least.

“It’s nighttime; it’s cold out; it’s a nightmare,” Esperson says in an interview in December.

“I’m not bugging people. I’m not doing anything. I’m trying to stay warm for the night, because I have no other options.”

Esperson settled into the planter and dozed off. The police would arrive around midnight.

***

When we talk about homelessness in Ithaca, we’re really talking about two mostly distinct groups of people:

1) The permanently/persistently homeless — those who (like Esperson) have not had a place to stay for several years, though they may find the occasional place to stay or shelter bed.

2) The temporarily homeless — those who struggle to pay rent and bounce around from home to home, but don’t really spend most of their nights sleeping outside or on the street. There’s been a growing focus on this group among social service providers, who many in the field call the “housing insecure” or, more informally, “couch surfers.”

A Jungle campsite where one Ithaca homeless person kept his belongings. (Jeff Stein/Ithaca Voice)

Ithaca appears to have made more progress over the last few years in helping the first group, according to the multiple social service providers and government officials who were interviewed for this story.

“The number of people that are permanently homeless has declined somewhat,” says Christina Culver, executive director of the downtown Ithaca soup kitchen Loaves & Fishes.

It’s more difficult to assess the success of addressing the second population. Rising numbers of reported homeless youth in Tompkins County, for instance, may be more a reflection of increased outreach and awareness than a real increase in the underlying problem.

“People are realizing that these aren’t kids who just don’t get along with their parents: They have real challenges at home,” says Amie Hendrix, director of youth services for Tompkins County. “It’s serious. They’re leaving home for a lot of reasons, and it’s not about teenage rebellion.”

But while the two homeless populations face different challenges and require different solutions, they are unified in many other respects — in the discrimination they find when looking for housing, by their frustrations on the job market, and through the toxic cycle of crime and incarceration that often upends their lives.

***
Esperson knew he was in trouble when the police arrived.

In sleeping at Center Ithaca, he knew he probably wasn’t supposed to be there. But he didn’t think he was doing anything wrong.

“It’s not right for me to get punished in the first place; I’m just trying to survive,” he says.

Law enforcement, however, had little choice but to ticket Esperson. He was, in fact, breaking the law by sleeping on private property.

Esperson got an appearance ticket for court and a fine. Esperson faced other trespassing tickets, and so bail for his release was set at $1,000, according to Ronna Collins, chief clerk at Ithaca City Court.

Being homeless and unemployed, Esperson couldn’t come up with the money. He would spend a full eight days in the Tompkins County Jail as a result, getting booked on Dec. 2 and released on Dec. 9, according to Collins.

When Esperson got out, he again had nowhere to go. In an interview shortly after his release from jail, Esperson said he had gone earlier in the day back to the Rescue Mission only to discover they were again at maximum capacity.

So Esperson sat on the Commons, weighing his options. There’s a Chinese restaurant in Ithaca, Esperson says, where the owners sometimes see him outside and leave the door open a crack so he can spend the night sleeping in their hallway.

It’s a small act of kindness — but one that Esperson says that he doesn’t try to take advantage of too frequently, for fear the restaurant owners will stop opening the door at all.

***

James Baker, the interim head of the Tompkins County public defender program, said that judges in the city of Ithaca are generally very careful not to punish defendants because of their poverty.

“The city court judges are very sensitive to that, in my experience,” he said.

James Baker

But Baker said that this is not always the case in some of the outlying towns in Tompkins County, where the courts are sometimes run by judges who don’t have law degrees. (There’s an active push to educate these outlying court judges or abolish their positions entirely.)

Since taking over the office of public defender about two months ago, Baker said he has been alerted to one case of a defendant who was incarcerated after not making bail for a misdemeanor non-violent offense.

“They often fit the same pattern: Someone is unable to pay the fine, the court issues the warrant, the person is hauled into court and then hauled off to jail before a lawyer can get involved,” Baker said.

While Baker didn’t have statistics on how frequently this kind of jailing occurs, he said he has seen it happen throughout his career as a local defense attorney.

That’s a major problem, according to Baker, and a violation of Constitutional rights: People can’t be punished simply because they are unable to afford to pay a fine, Baker says.

“It’s improper to jail someone for being poor. But sometimes an indigent person has to lose a couple of days (behind bars) until it gets sorted out, and it’s just not right,” Baker said. “Someone shouldn’t be shanghaied into jail like that.”

There are also other, sometimes subtler ways that the justice system and Ithaca’s housing crisis combine to throw up obstacles to those seeking to find a permanent way out of homelessness.

The housing crisis, for instance, often makes it difficult for young people released from jail to find stability in their lives, according to Sally Schwartzbach of the non-profit The Learning Web, which — among other functions — helps young people in Tompkins try to find stable housing.

“The housing market is so out of reach that it becomes hard to comply with the goals probation has for them,” Schwartzbach says.

About 50 percent of released inmates at the Tompkins jail say they don’t have plans for stable housing upon their release, according to a report released this September by a committee of the Tompkins County Legislature.

“For somebody getting out of jail — to find housing on their own, most of it is totally out of reach,” Schwartzbach says.

***

Esperson left Massachusetts about 15 years ago after the sudden death of his girlfriend.

“I’ve had a job, an apartment, a girl,” he says. “I’ve had a life. You don’t know what it’s like to lose your best friend.”

After coming to Ithaca, Esperson met some friends and spent some time following the Grateful Dead. He became a heroin addict — ”I did my dance with drugs,” he says — though now says he is clean, with the exception of alcohol.

It’s been about 10 years since he had stable housing. Over that period, he says, he’s been to jail multiple times for minor violations like trespassing.

“We need a place to go. We don’t need jail,” he says, noting that he has at least 10 homeless friends who face similar circumstances. “Save the jail for the rapists and murderers.”

Asked if he would consider leaving Ithaca because of the lack of available housing, Esperson reacted with vehemence.

He refuses, he said, to cede ground to the gentrifiers and college students he sees as being prioritized over the city’s poorest residents.

“This is my home. I don’t give a shit how much money you have. This is my home: I’m not leaving,” Esperson says. “I ain’t budging for these rich yuppies.”

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Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.