Editor’s Note: The following is Part III of “Spotlight: The crisis of Ithaca’s homeless,” the Ithaca Voice’s five-part series on homelessness for “Spotlight on Ithaca.”
Kalil Hendel contributed reporting.
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ITHACA, N.Y. — Carmen Guidi got a call in February 2012 from one of the men living in “The Jungle,” the now-closed homeless encampment that once existed on the west side of town.
The tipster’s claim turned out to be true: Despite the freezing temperatures, a man was living with his wife and 8-month-old baby in a homeless encampment behind Ithaca’s Agway, according to Guidi. Guidi met with the man and brought him to the Department of Social Services building on West State Street.
Guidi said he demanded that the man be housed, recalling that he told DSS: “We’re not leaving until we get these people into permanent housing.”
According to Guidi, it then took a full three days before the family was given a place to stay.
“That’s incredible,” Guidi says. “You’re talking about an 8-month-old baby living outside in February … Am I living in America? Really? An 8-month-old baby? Outside?”
The Tompkins County Department of Social Services is a lightning rod for criticism over homelessness in Ithaca.
The agency, part of the Tompkins County government, can give the local homeless money to find temporary housing. That includes reimbursing the Rescue Mission for a bed at its emergency shelter.
But there’s a catch: DSS won’t give out money to house the homeless if that person faces “sanctions” — sanctions that can bar drug users or alcoholics, who make up a substantial portion of Ithaca’s homeless population, from finding housing.
“They have to go through a drug and alcohol screen and need to be engaging in treatment. If they’re not engaging in treatment … temporary assistance won’t pay for your shelter,” says Deana Bodnar, program development specialist at the Tompkins County Department of Social Services, in an interview.
The problem is that this approach flies against a growing body of national research that the most effective way to reduce homelessness is to first provide the housing, on the theory that the housing will help the homeless person to defeat substance abuse.
Many local homeless experts point out that it can be exceedingly difficult for those sleeping outside to get sober until they have somewhere to live.
Bodnar, however, said the Tompkins County DSS has no choice in the matter. It’s not a question of what DSS locally wants to do, she said, but what it is obligated to do under law.
“We follow the regs,” Bodnar says. “We can’t not (follow the rules) or we get sanctioned and then we can’t help anybody. If the funding gets limited by the state or feds to us — that’s why we follow the regulations.”
Bodnar added that she wouldn’t publicly judge the merit of the sanctions one way or the other.
“It’s a complicated thing. I’m not going to state any opinions for the press,” she said.
In a separate phone interview, DSS Commissioner Patricia Carey said that the county does not have wiggle room to make it easier for the homeless to receive benefits. She noted that the Tompkins DSS is audited by state officials.
“It’d be nice if there was some flexibility in our county; we try to take a generous view of what kind of activity people are engaged in to remain getting their benefits — so it’s a determination that we’re required to make,” Carey said.
“…It’s a statewide system that we’re governed by. And I believe we make every attempt to make sure someone is getting benefits that they are eligible for.”
(Carey did not respond to a follow-up email asking about Guidi’s story about the baby.)
At the beginning of our interview, Bodnar suggested Tompkins County is actually more lenient in its disbursement of funding for the homeless.
“We follow the regulations that every county does; there are plenty of counties that interpret the county much more strictly than we do,” she said.
But pressed about the issue further, Bodnar appeared to back down from that statement.
“I can’t make any comparisons with the other counties,” she said, “because I don’t know how they’re implementing it.”
It can be maddeningly frustrating to try getting help for a homeless person in Ithaca.
That’s the conclusion of Neil Oolie, a long-time Ithaca resident and volunteer at the Loaves & Fishes soup kitchen.
Oolie knew one homeless person who managed to secure a job interview, then went with Oolie to the Tompkins County Department of Social Services for help getting emergency housing before the interview.
“All we’re asking is for DSS to authorize him to be in the shelter for three days until after that job interview,” Oolie says. “They didn’t want to do it! They said, ‘We have this place out in Groton, if you don’t take it today then we’re cutting you off.’”
If the man could have stayed at the emergency shelter in Ithaca, Oolie says, he may have gotten the job and eventually been able to pay for his own housing. But with no way of getting from Groton to the job interview, the man ended up needing to sleep on the street in Ithaca.
“If you look at how much DSS will pay for housing and what the rents are in Ithaca, it’s shocking,” Oolie says. “It’s insane.”
The sanctions policy is a recurring source of frustration for homeless people, many social service providers and volunteers like Oolie. It’s unclear to what extent Tompkins County’s DSS could give the homeless more latitude around the sanctions regulations.
“In Syracuse, DSS will do whatever it takes,” says Dan Sieburg, chief programs officer of the Rescue Mission.
It’s difficult enough to get a homeless person — sometimes addicted to drugs or mentally handicapped — to agree to get help, according to Sieburg.
When a homeless person agrees to get helped by an agency like the Rescue Mission, and is then still rebuked by DSS, that can prove a big setback to attempts to help the homeless person.
“It’s hugely defeating,” Sieburg says. “And then the agency is kind of in the middle.”
Added Melissa Marrone, coordinator of the Housing and Homeless Coalition of Syracuse and Onondaga County: “In Syracuse, DSS will do whatever it takes.”
Like Sieburg, Marrone stressed that the DSS in Syracuse — where the homeless per capita rate is at least five times smaller than it is in Ithaca — is flexible and strives to work around a homeless person’s mental health and substance abuse history.
“Even if the person has sanctions, we’ll make sure the person comes indoors. If it’s not a shelter, we figure it out in other ways,” Marrone says. “DSS is the huge player.”
Several other local officials also pointed to problems with DSS, though they often expressed reluctance to publicly criticize the agency they have to work with regularly. One doubted Bodnar’s explanation that the state would take punitive action against a local government agency.
“Have you heard of a county DSS being destroyed by the state?,” said one high-ranking official in local government who only agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity.
“There’s more they can do to change their standards and to house more people. They use the state as a scapegoat. It’s what I hear from all corners.”
Guidi, of Second Wind Cottages, also said he thought Tompkins County’s DSS could relax its restrictions on giving reimbursements for homeless people facing sanctions.
“They should be doing better … they should have less restrictions, less barriers for people getting help,” Guidi said.
Guidi says that sometimes DSS sends people to apartments that lack basic safety measures like locks or, in some instances, doors. But if the homeless person then decides not to live in the property, according to Guidi, he or she will face sanctions from DSS that prevent him or her from staying in the shelter.
“I have people who are living outdoors because it’s safer than the places DSS puts them,” Guidi says.
“And when they decline to move there DSS puts them on sanctions and they can’t get any help at all. It’s that bad.”
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