ITHACA, N.Y. — Overnight Monday, volunteers searched parks and parking lots, looked under bridges and trekked to known encampments in Tompkins County searching for people who may be sleeping unsheltered.
Though some volunteers found no one, others did. With clipboards in hand, they asked people about their living conditions and health and handed them big bags stuffed with blankets, flashlights, tarps, socks, gift cards, gloves, toothbrushes and other essentials. The outreach was part of a the annual Point in Time count of the homeless.
Homelessness is a growing issue in Tompkins County. The Ithaca Rescue Mission has seen more people, especially families, than ever coming through its doors this winter, director Richard Bennett said.
To get a sense of the number of people who are homeless across the country, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development requires a Point in Time count. Locally, the Tompkins County Continuum of Care, led by the Human Services Coalition, partners with local agencies to organize the count.
Tierra Labrada, Continuum of Care coordinator, said the logic behind HUD requiring the count in January is “if you’re unsheltered or if you’re seeking shelter in an emergency shelter or some transient housing program within the coldest month of the year, then chances are you don’t have anywhere else to go.”
But the system is not perfect, especially for people living in the Northeast, Labrada said, as the transient population may head south or find someplace to go during Ithaca’s harsh winters.
“We understand that it’s not the most accurate account of the population,” Labrada said. Still, it gives volunteers a chance to connect with people who are homeless and give them supplies.
The count took place from 9 p.m. Monday to 9 a.m. Tuesday. It was a warm night for January, around 40 degrees, so the state’s cold weather policy was not in effect. Last year, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order requiring local governments to find shelter for people who are homeless when the temperatures is 32 degrees or colder with wind chill.
Before going out to search, volunteers met at the Ithaca Rescue Mission on State Street and were paired with an officer from the Ithaca Police Department, Tompkins County Sheriff’s Office or New York State Police.
Volunteers were told to lead with compassion, Labrada said. They do not wake anyone if they are sleeping. If people are awake, they are asked to answer an anonymous survey. If asleep, volunteers can fill out an observational survey.
The questions cover how long they have been homeless and ask about situations like substance abuse or mental health issues that may contribute to their housing instability or difficulty holding a job.
One team, Elise Steele and New York State Police Officer Erica Page, checked a few spots in Ithaca on the first shift, exploring around Route 13 in Ithaca toward Newfield. They checked around Buttermilk and Treman Falls, explored pull-off areas, under a bridge and poked into abandoned houses. Eventually, a trail of tracks in the snow led them to two people camped out.
“We could tell someone was probably there,” Steele said.
So they took the bags stuffed with items and followed the trail until they reached a campsite. Steele said the pair residing there were naturally wary of visitors tromping into their camp at first, but opened up quickly and were happy to receive the care packages. She said the man was kind and told her he struggled with addiction, but was getting into rehab this week. They had been living there for six to eight months, the man told her, and had three tents with tarps and some source of heating like propane, Steele said, because they were eating Ramen noodles when they arrived.
Surveys from volunteers were still coming in Tuesday, but the results from the local count will be presented in the next couple months.
Bennett, who has been director since 2015, said the community has seen a steady growth in homelessness. He said something they are seeing at the shelter is more families without safety nets. Some were displaced by fires in the community last year, like the large fire at Poet’s Landing in Dryden. Families with fewer resources, the opioid crisis and ongoing local issues with housing like the low vacancy rate have contributed to more people in need of shelter, Bennett said.
“We continue to see more people walking through our door and certainly more families than we’ve seen in the past in need of shelter. This winter, we’re just seeing numbers that we’ve never seen before coming into the shelter,” Bennett said.
Bennett said in December, they averaged around 60 to 70 clients in need. On the worst night so far this year winter, 90 people were seeking shelter.
There is also a wait list for housing in Tompkins County. As of Friday, the list includes 28 chronically homeless, 45 adults not considered chronically homeless and 19 youth, Labrada said.
Related: Hundreds of community youth still homeless, local organizations call for more resources in Tompkins County
When Bennett first began working at the Rescue Mission three years ago, he said in the summer there were some days there were only two or three people in the shelter. He said running the shelter at that point, one of his first questions was, “Is there really a need in this community for a permanent shelter? There’s no longer really a question in my mind about that need.”
There have been some positive steps locally to help address homelessness and housing issues.
Tompkins County Legislature has allocated $50,000 per year for three years to Continuum of Care’s Transitional Housing Plan. So far, the money has helped fund the Endeavor House, housing for formerly incarcerated men to get back on their feet. Some has also gone to Catholic Charities to fund a rental subsidy program. This year, the Continuum of Care is focusing on private landlords by calling for proposals for a workshop series for landlords to teach them about people who receive subsidies to pay for units and also trying to help landlords increase the livability of their units.
“We’re trying to do what we can to get private landlords more engaged in the low-income population,” Labrada said.
The annual Point in Time count, scheduled during the toughest time of year for people without shelter, draws attention to the issue of homelessness briefly, but Bennett said he hopes people will see people living unsheltered as neighbors.
“We have neighbors and community members and friends who you see every day, who might hand you coffee, who may sort of serve you, who you may bump into on the street, who are going home to encampments or not going home at all because they don’t have a place to live,” Bennett said. “While there’s certainly a percentage of this population who proves every stereotype true, the majority of the people we serve, they’re neighbors and friends and we need to do better by them.”
Featured image: File photo of The Jungle in Ithaca