This letter to the editor was written by County Administrator Joe Mareane. As always, we are eager to reprint alternative or dissenting viewpoints. Please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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To the Editor
Over the past few weeks, the Ithaca Voice has published a series of article about homelessness in Ithaca. The articles were a powerful reminder that homelessness is persistent, its causes complex, and its urgency ever-present.
From the perspective of government, the articles affirmed that addressing the causes and victims of homelessness can never fall from the top of our priority list. As County Administrator, I can assure you it hasn’t, and it won’t.
But the articles fell back to a common tendency to look for a simple cause of homelessness. A stranger to Tompkins County who read the stories must think that the people who have devoted their careers to helping those impacted by homelessness are cold, by-the-book, bureaucrats who don’t care about people who need shelter. Fix that, the reporter suggests, and homelessness can be solved.
Those who know Tompkins County know that the picture painted by the story is far from the truth. If anything, we are often criticized for being too soft, too empathetic, too willing to go the extra mile to make sure a person who needs help gets it. Yes, there are rules set by State funders. But within those rules, we find ways to provide help—including immediate help when the need is urgent. Let me explain.
When a homeless individual or family comes to DSS, our first priority is to make sure they have immediate shelter. We are required to quickly verify that there aren’t alternatives (such as friends and family). We then place the individual or family in the 20-bed Rescue Mission shelter or, if that’s full or not appropriate for the situation, we rent a room in a local motel.
When State rules prohibit the use of public funds to house someone (perhaps they have violated public assistance rules), other funding streams are available to the Rescue Mission to take the individual in.
No one who is homeless in Tompkins County needs to be without shelter. And once someone is in the shelter or motel, we work with them to find a more permanent place to live.
This is not a 9-5 commitment. Whenever individuals need help, County staff is available to assist. Nor is this an office-bound, you-come-to-us, operation.
We have staff assigned to walk “the Jungle” and other places where homeless gather to work with them to find immediate and permanent housing. We are joined in the field by staff of the Salvation Army, Rescue Mission, and Family & Children’s Services. And we not only react to crises, we proactively work with individuals who are at risk of being evicted or losing their homes.
The Voice articles compare Tompkins County to Onondaga County, and finds us lacking. Having worked for both counties, I strongly disagree with that comparison and suggest caution is in order when relying on statistics that also indicate that among the 744,000 residents of Monroe County, not a single one was without shelter in 2011 or 2012.
There is no doubt that Syracuse has the advantage of being home to a Rescue Mission that raises and invests millions in its remarkable Syracuse campus. Still, homelessness persists in Onondaga County, just as it does here. Both governments are dedicated to sheltering all who are homeless, both do what they can to find ways to work within the rules set by the State, and both wake up every day facing new challenges.
In any human service system, there is always more to be done. Resources are not limitless, the need for services always seems to be increasing, and governments must deal with maddening rules and regs intended to ensure that policy is fairly and judiciously applied.
In spite of all that, Tompkins County rapidly provides shelter to those who need it.
If the Voice is seeking the causes of homelessness, it has plenty of places to look. One of them is not the people who have devoted their careers to doing something about homelessness, rather than just talking about it. They are not a part of the problem, they are the cornerstone of the solution.
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