Editor’s Note: The following is Part V of “Spotlight: The crisis of Ithaca’s homeless,” the Ithaca Voice’s five-part series on homelessness for “Spotlight on Ithaca.”
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ITHACA, N.Y. — If you want to feel hopeful about Ithaca’s homelessness crisis, head to the west side of the city and park at the copper-frame building next to Ithaca Bakery on Rt. 13.
Opened in August 2014, the Magnolia House provides 14 beds to formerly homeless women.
By any measure, it is already a striking success.
Start with the facility itself. It fits naturally into a busy commercial strip, located walking distance from grocery stores and downtown but secluded enough to avoid unwarranted attention.
Inside, the Magnolia House is fitted with LED lighting, a children’s playground filled with toys and games, natural light, free washing machines and a fully-furnished kitchen.
The spacious individual rooms have art on the walls, cotton beds, table-top stoves and kitchenettes, a plush couch, and an elegant personal bathroom.
“When you see the faces on the mothers and children when they come in … There’s generally tears, there’s excitement: They finally have a place to call their own,” says Donna Veninsky, family services provider for Tompkins Community Action, the private non-profit that runs the Magnolia House (in part with government money).
“The place is ready for them, and there’s a huge impact.”
Some photos of the Magnolia House:
The sleek setting is complemented by courses and programs for the women who are living at the Magnolia House. The formerly homeless women can learn how to cook, share communal meals, take courses in healthy living and get help enrolling their children in school programs.
Many of the women come to the Magnolia House having been separated from their children by social services agencies because of drug or alcohol addictions.
Four local mothers who went through the Magnolia House’s programs have already been reunited with their children.
“That’s huge: Those parents are now fully responsible for their children. That’s very exciting,” Veninsky says.
“We’re seeing that emotional impact, per person … If there wasn’t a Magnolia House, there’d be a big gap in this community.”
Will Ithaca be able to end its homeless crisis?
Mayor Svante Myrick says he is optimistic that some of the policies being pursued by the county and city — a spurt of housing construction, plans for a new shelter for homeless youth — will help the homeless find housing.
But the real key to ending homeless, said the mayor — who was himself homeless for stretches of his youth — isn’t necessarily a matter of policy. Instead, Myrick pointed to the importance of getting the public to realize the reality of homelessness — that it can be solved, and that the homeless do want housing.
“For too long we have deluded ourselves into thinking homelessness is a problem that can’t be solved, and that people who are homeless have made a conscious choice and that we shouldn’t interfere,” Myrick said.
“The truth is that most people who are homeless are in desperate need of help, and for whatever reason are incapable of asking for it.”
Myrick said government and social service agencies must find solutions to house the homeless, even if doing so can be difficult.
“You can’t blame the victim … we can’t just say, ‘The tools are there, they just have to pick them up.’ If they’re not picking them up, you have to adjust the tools,” Myrick said.
“To say that the tools are there and they just don’t want to use them, that’s their problem — that’s a recipe for having a lot of people on the street.”
In 2004, Gary Stephen Reese Jr. arrived in Ithaca with nowhere to stay.
The Red Cross put him in a hotel for 30 days, at the end of which he caught a break — a job at which he helped create systems for the Tompkins County Department of Social Services.
Reese stopped working locally around 2006. But during his time here, he helped build DSS’s Homeless Management Information System, which tracks the number of homeless people in a region for the federal government’s Housing and Urban Development department.
“I built from the ground up the database for Social Services. HUD wanted a count of how many people were homeless,” Reese says in an interview at the Loaves & Fishes soup kitchen this December.
Reese, a veteran, moved to the Bronx for a job that paid better. But he has since lost that job, and recently returned to Ithaca.
Reese again had nowhere to stay when he got to Ithaca. And so, in a cruel twist, Reese will now be one of the subjects for the homeless management counting system he helped create.
“Currently, I’m sleeping in the back of a bus,” Reese says.
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