Editor’s Note: The following is Part IV 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. — J.R. Clairborne was running out of options.
The longtime Ithaca alderperson was looking to find a homeless man somewhere to stay. The man had come to the Loaves & Fishes soup kitchen in downtown Ithaca for a meal and told a volunteer that he had nowhere to go come nighttime.
Clairborne called the Tompkins County Department of Social Services for help. He got nowhere.
Clairborne called the emergency shelter on Ithaca’s west-end. No beds available.
As the afternoon stretched into the early evening, Clairborne realized the worst-case scenario was coming to pass. The man would end up sleeping on Ithaca’s streets.
“There are people who, at the end of the day, the best we can do for them is to leave them a number,” Clairborne says. “It sucks. I don’t know how to be more articulate about it than to say it sucks.”
The Loaves & Fishes staff did the best it could to provide the homeless man with a care package for the night. Then the man left, alone.
There are two primary options for a homeless person looking for somewhere to stay in Ithaca, neither good:
1) He or she can seek housing at the Rescue Mission at 618 West State Street, which is almost always at capacity, according to most homeless people and officials interviewed for this story.
There are 20 beds at the shelter, the Rescue Mission’s website says. The Rescue Mission will sometimes also pay for homeless people to stay at a local hotel, according to Kathy Schlather, executive director of the Housing Services Coalition of Tompkins County.
2) The homeless person can also try working with local providers to get government help to find housing.
This route doesn’t provider great options, either. One of the programs offered by Tompkins County requires alcohol and drug screenings that many homeless struggle to pass. And the waiting list for Section 8 housing vouchers often stretches to two full years, according to local providers.
Why are there so few emergency beds for the homeless in Ithaca? And why is it so difficult for local housing providers to find more permanent housing?
These are two separate questions, but they can both be explained by the same phenomenon: The lack of space to construct new affordable housing or a new shelter in the city of Ithaca.
The key culprit in Ithaca’s homeless crisis is, in other words, Ithaca’s housing crisis.
The upshot of the problem: The increase in Cornell’s student population has not been met by an increase in the city’s housing stock, giving landlords the ability to jack up rents without fear of losing tenants.
Cornell does contribute significant sums annually to both the city and to a specific local housing fund, but city officials say housing growth has simply not been enough to keep pace with the growth of the student body.
Here’s the key stat: Cornell added 2,400 new students from 2005 and 2014. Meanwhile, over that period, Ithaca only added 657 new housing units, according to a letter written last summer by Mayor Svante Myrick and Legislator Martha Robertson.
There’s no way that math doesn’t hurt those at the bottom of the income ladder in their housing search, officials say.
“It’s a resource issue. Housing is expensive in Ithaca, and that eventually trickles down to people who can’t afford any housing at all,” says Nels Bohn, Schlather’s co-chair on the “Continuum of Care” responsible for fighting Tompkins’ homelessness. “The housing affordability crisis makes it a more difficult issue to address.”
In an interview, Mayor Myrick also said the city’s homeless crisis stems from its housing crisis.
“The housing crisis is bad for everybody, but it’s the worst for the poorest and nobody’s poorer than the homeless,” Myrick said.
Compounding the problem, Myrick said, is an absence of political strength to represent the interests of the homeless.
“They’re a population without a constituency,” Myrick said of the homeless. “They don’t vote; they don’t contribute to elections; they don’t show up to hearings about affordable housing.”
After a series of violent incidents and deaths in Ithaca’s Jungle, Myrick led a city effort that cleared out the homeless encampment in 2013.
Not long after, however, a similar homeless encampment — called “Jungle III” by some — appeared behind Ithaca’s Walmart.
“It’s disappointing to see that another Jungle has cropped up; it really becomes disheartening,” Myrick said, “… but I think we won’t completely eradicate the Jungle until we have more housing.”
Myrick has run into strenuous criticisms of his attempts to expand the city’s housing stock. But he said that if Ithaca is going to solve its homeless crisis, more must still be done.
“We need to believe both that homelessness can be eradicated and that homelessness should be eradicated. And I think we have to recognize that what we have done has not been enough,” he said.
Matt Moses found shelter at Ithaca’s Rescue Mission after losing a job at Dunkin Donuts. But since he still has a separate job at Insomnia Cookies, he’s been told he’ll have to find new housing.
“You could stay (at the Rescue Mission), but as soon as you get a job you’re gonna lose your DSS, and then you’re right back to making enough to scrape by,” Moses says. “You lose your job and go back on welfare and get your food paid, but as soon as you get a job they take it away.”
In an interview at Loaves & Fishes in late December, Moses said he’d was staying at a property with help of the Rescue Mission. “It’s the only place in Ithaca I can possibly afford on a single full-time job,” he said.
This points to the crucial problem facing the homeless, Moses said: A nearly total lack of housing in Ithaca that those on the bottom of the income ladder can afford.
“When you have line cooks and dishwashers and cashiers, we can’t just walk into a place and demand $30,000,” Moses says, “so the housing for people that don’t make a middle class wage is unavailable in Ithaca without getting Section 8.”
As the clock ticks on Moses’ public assistance, he’s not sure where he’ll turn next.
“When my time runs out,” Moses says, “I’m going to be back looking for a place I can’t afford.”
Can the housing crisis be alleviated?
There’s at least two reasons to be pessimistic. For one, it’s not clear if there’s much political or financial will to build more housing for those at the bottom of the income spectrum.
Several of the projects in the city that have gotten off the ground — from affordable housing on Spencer Road to the Hancock Street apartment complex — have been met by fierce opposition from local residents and some officials.
And then there’s the issue of higher construction costs, which forced Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services to cancel Greenways — a major affordable housing project planned for the town of Ithaca.
As the squeeze continues, rents continue to rise. Bohn said that the Section 8 housing voucher now only meets about a quarter of the need in the county.
“It is a seemingly hopeless situation, to be able to earn or acquire enough money to even move into a new rental,” says Liddy Bargar, who as service navigator for Catholic Charities is on the front-lines of helping those who struggle to afford their housing.
Bargar notes that most landlords in Ithaca ask for at least $1,800 immediately — the first and last months’ rent, plus a security deposit. That’s just too money for most low- and even middle-income people, she says.
“Do they try to find the least expensive rental, which is usually in the outlying areas and not on accessible public transportation routes to access jobs and services? Do they try to pay more and live in downtown Ithaca?,” Bargar said.
“What about childcare? How will they pay for a moving truck? If they lose their homes what are they to do with their belongings? Storage? How can they pay?”
Part V will be published later on Friday.
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