ITHACA, N.Y. — Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick and Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton have put their support behind a program that aims to reduce homelessness locally and across New York.

On Wednesday, Myrick and Lifton joined Assemblyman Andrew Hevesi, D-Queens, and Ithaca Rescue Mission Regional Director Richard Bennett to endorse Home Stability Support at a press conference. The new program is designed to bridge the gap between the shelter allowance for people on public assistance and local fair-market rent cost.

That difference in Tompkins County is about $767, according to data from Home Stability Support that compares the shelter allowance versus the HUD fair market rent for a two-bedroom unit.

Myrick said the program is “close to his heart” because he was born into homelessness. He said he spent the first six months of his life in a homeless shelter and spent many years in housing insecurity, moving in and out of shelters.

“I’m convinced that my life was saved, that I was able to go to a school like Cornell, I was able to eventually take on a job like mayor of the City of Ithaca, because I got the support I needed to be stable. And for me I was so lucky that it was my grandparents that could take us in,” Myrick said.

Myrick said one of his goals is to make sure no children in Ithaca have to grow up with the same uncertainty and fear he felt.

“That is poverty does, it’s what extreme poverty does, it’s what homelessness does. It’s not just about wanting and not having, it’s about being afraid all the time,” Myrick said.

Spotlight: The crisis of Ithaca’s homeless

Last year, there were 32 people living on the street in Ithaca unsheltered, about 40 using shelter services of the Rescue Mission, and another 50 to 100 more “couch surfing” with unstable housing, Bennett said. He also said at least 10 people a day are facing eviction.

“The biggest problem that we have within that community is the risk of violence and abuse and victimization are two or three times more likely, and go up each night that someone is trapped on the streets,” Bennett said “The great thing about this program and why I applaud this effort is the best solution to homelessness is to prevent it from happening in the first place.”

Bennett said most of the people at the shelter are working, but their employment does not allow them to put a down payment on a house or cover the cost of living in Ithaca.

On left, Richard Bennett, regional director of the Rescue Mission. Jolene Almendarez/Ithaca Voice

Across the state, there are 80,000 households on the brink of homelessness, Hevesi said. He added that there are 150,000 homeless children.

“That’s a generation of children who don’t have a place to say,” Hevesi said.

To be eligible for the program, individuals must already be on public assistance. However, not all 550,000 people on public assistance in New York will be eligible. The program is specifically meant to target the 80,000 households calculated to be on the brink of homelessness.

Before 1975, most people on public assistance had their rents paid in full. In 1975, the state created a shelter allowance schedule, which is a series of regulatory limits based on districts, family size and whether heat is included in the rent, a news release said. Proponents of the new program say the shelter allowance has failed to keep up with the rising cost of housing.

The program will be entirely federally and state funded. For the first five years, it will be funded at the federal level, and after that New York will fund the rest. The program will also replace all existing optional rent supplements. Tompkins County is not one of the 11 counties that have rental supplements. The program is intended to save money by reducing shelter use and costs associated with homelessness and evictions, like soup kitchens, court costs and shelters.

“Local counties, local districts, local municipalities have been forced to pick up the cost for this crisis after people are in crisis. It is bad public policy to make the localities pay for services that we shouldn’t have to provide. We shouldn’t have to be sheltering individuals when it is exponentially cheaper to keep them in their current housing,” Hevesi said.

UPDATE (10:30 a.m.): After publication, Ithaca Voice readers asked if Ithaca being a sanctuary city might affect the city receiving funding for the program since President Donald Trump has said he will cut federal funding to sanctuary cities.

Myrick responded on Facebook: “No, because the HSS would come from the federal government to the State and NYS would disburse directly to families. … But Trump’s threat to remove federal funding is simply a threat at this point. He will face a class action lawsuit from every major cities in the country if he tries – and I believe he will lose.”

Related: Unanimous vote: Ithaca now a Sanctuary City with some teeth

Over the last five years, Hevesi said, the state has cut funds to homeless services by 4 percent. “It’s an outrage,” he said.

The program could impact hundreds of people in Tompkins County.

According to date from Home Stability Support, in Tompkins County 248 people are struggling to make ends meet, 179 are on the brink of homelessness and 53 will become homeless without intervention.

The coalition came up with those numbers by analyzing data from the New York State Office of Temporary and Disability Assitance, according to Jon Greenfield, communications manager.

Because homelessness affects every district, Hevesi said, the program has received support from 110 members of the New York State Assembly, including 30 republicans. The Independent Democratic Conference in the Senate will also be carrying it.

Barbara Lifton, D-Ithaca, also voiced her support for the program.

“We have a statewide problem of homelessness. It’s here. It’s everywhere. It’s certainly in the city as well. And we want to tackle it statewide,” Lifton said.

Featured image: From left, Richard Bennett, regional director of the Rescue Mission, Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick, Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton and Assemblyman Andrew Hevesi. Photo by Jolene Almendarez/Ithaca Voice

Kelsey O'Connor

Kelsey O'Connor is the managing editor for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact her at koconnor@ithacavoice.com and follow her on Twitter @bykelseyoconnor.