Editor’s Note: The following is the introduction to a five-part series, “Spotlight: The crisis of Ithaca’s homeless.”
Kalil Hendel contributed reporting.
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ITHACA, N.Y. — He was found hanging from a tree.
In taking his own life, Steve, 50, finally escaped the homelessness that plagued the last years of his life. Just not the way his friends had long wanted him to.
“He was without hope,” says Carmen Guidi, a friend of Steve’s and the founder of Second Wind Cottages, which is giving homeless Ithaca residents permanent, stable housing in Newfield.
Steve, whose has been changed at the request of his family, died after years of living in the Ithaca homeless encampment known as “The Jungle.”
“These guys are depressed,” Guidi says. “They’re living outside, for God’s sake. They want a home.”
As part of our “Spotlight on Ithaca” series on homelessness in Ithaca, The Ithaca Voice examined dozens of public records, spoke to many of those who spend most of their nights sleeping outdoors, and interviewed more than 20 homeless providers and other government officials on the front-lines of the crisis.
Over the next two weeks, The Ithaca Voice will be publishing a five-part series examining the unending homelessness crisis in Ithaca.
Our story will reveal the following key findings:
1 — Nowhere to go
There is a deep myth about homelessness in Ithaca.
While many people think that the homeless live outside by choice or because they are unwilling to follow the rules governing public housing options, this is often untrue.
In fact, even if a homeless person pursues every possible avenue for shelter, he or she will often have no option but to sleep outdoors anyway.
This can lead to a demoralizing cycle involving unemployment, substance abuse and homelessness, which create a feedback cycle some find impossible to break.
“There are people who, at the end of the day, the best we can do for them is to leave them a number,” says J.R. Clairborne, a former city alderperson who also works at the Loaves & Fishes soup kitchen in downtown Ithaca.
2 — Lack of emergency shelter beds
Clairborne’s statement alludes to one of the major shortcoming in Ithaca’s provider network for the homeless: A lack of adequate shelter care.
A relatively small number of emergency beds for the homeless forces a needlessly large group to sleep on Ithaca’s streets, according to the assessment of the city and county officials interviewed for this story.
The Rescue Mission provides about 20 emergency beds at its shelter on West State Street. That’s often not enough to meet demand, local officials say.
There is some talk of building a new shelter on Ithaca’s West Hill. But that facility would only house homeless youth, leaving much of the crisis unaddressed.
3 — Worse than Syracuse?
Despite Ithaca’s relative affluence and prosperity, we actually have a worse homeless problem than some of the other poverty-stricken cities in upstate New York.
Syracuse, for instance, has had fewer unsheltered homeless people over the last five years than Ithaca, according to federal government statistics.
An Ithaca Voice analysis shows that Tompkins County has a per capita homeless rate of five times that of Onondaga County, where Syracuse is located.
Ithaca’s distinctive housing market is widely cited as the reason for this divide. It’s up for debate, however, if differences in local government and social service practices aren’t also contributing factors.
4 — Unnecessary obstacles to helping the homeless?
One branch of our local government, the Tompkins County Department of Social Services, plays a large role determining whether homeless people receive government assistance in their housing search.
Could DSS make it easier for homeless people in Tompkins County to get the help they’re seeking? That’s the viewpoint of several homeless people in Ithaca, who voiced that perspective again and again in interviews.
DSS says its hands are tied by state regulations and has no choice in its application of the law.
Not everyone agrees.
5 — Signs of hope
There are many reasons to believe Ithaca — and providers across the country — are getting better at rooting out homelessness.
We have better data and more case studies and a deeper understanding about homelessness than ever before. A consensus seems to be crystallizing around a “housing-first” approach to ending homelessness community by community.
It’s still unclear if Ithaca will be able to put a meaningful dent in its homelessness population. But there is reason to hope.
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