The Rescue Mission in Ithaca

ITHACA, N.Y. – At the end of October, the Rescue Mission will end its homeless services at the Friendship Center on State Street in Ithaca. Plans are moving forward in Tompkins County Legislature to replace the organization. The Health and Human Services Committee gave the Department of Social Services approval to negotiate a contract with St. John’s Community Services on Monday.

The Rescue Mission of Syracuse has operated a daytime drop-in center, an emergency shelter and transitional single room occupancy units at the Friendship Center since 2014. The county announced in July that it would not be renewing the organization’s contract and put out a request for proposals to replace it.

The RFP sought proposals from organizations with experience managing drop-in and shelter services. Bidders were encouraged to maintain existing transitional housing units to avoid displacing the 15 current residents.

In addition, DSS sought bidders that would manage after-hours motel placements for clients who could not be housed in the emergency shelter. Families who show up at the shelter are placed in motel rooms regularly. When temperatures dip below freezing, anyone who shows up at the shelter after it reaches capacity is likewise housed at a motel in keeping with New York state law.

Motel placements were a sticking point in the relationship between the Rescue Mission and the county. A statement by CEO Dan Sieburg explains that there was significant lag time between the upfront costs of placements and reimbursement from the county. The arrangement was unsustainable for the Rescue Mission.

“The Ithaca Rescue Mission is not able to continue the ongoing practice of placing homeless individuals and families in hotel rooms, and it is our opinion that this is not an effective solution or approach to end homelessness,” the statement reads.

The Rescue Mission will not be leaving Ithaca entirely. It will continue to manage ten permanent affordable housing units at Court Street Place and its Thrifty Shopper store on Elmira Road will stay open.

Meanwhile, the county is entering negotiations to have St. John’s Social Services take over drop-in services, emergency shelter services and transitional housing services on State Street.

DSS received three bids following the RFP, from St. John’s, Catholic Charities and the Salvation Army. The agency decided the St. John’s proposal was the best fit for the county’s needs. A news release reads, “The Department sees St. John’s as a provider that can continue the County’s homeless housing services in a respectful and safe way.”

Kit Kephart, DSS commissioner, said at Monday’s meeting that St. John’s plans to have supervisors on staff during peak service hours tipped the scales in their favor. The St. John’s proposal includes 15 full-time equivalent employees, compared to 11 in the other two bids.

Kephart said supervisory oversight is crucial as homeless service providers try to meet clients’ medical, mental health and addiction needs, whether through direct services or referrals. St. John’s plan, she said, “was a well thought out proposal, a proposal that really looked at how to get people, as much as possible, out of the situation they’re in … to move people forward in their lives.”

All three bids came in with significantly higher costs than the past contract with the Rescue Mission. Kephart said the increase is partly due to expanded services and partly because the Rescue Mission offset costs with revenue from its thrift stores. “We’re playing some catch-up,” she said.

The St. John’s proposal would cost the county about $500,000 per year in operating costs, which is about $300,000 over the current budget. Start-up costs are not included in that amount; they will be discussed during negotiations. County Administrator Jason Molino said both the 2018 budget and the recommended 2019 budget will need to be modified to account for increased local costs.

HHS committee members questioned St. John’s ability to meet county needs immediately and in the long-term. Legislator and Committee Chair Shawna Black asked whether St. John’s would add shelter beds going forward.

“If we’re serious about housing people in our county, the location we have now is not doing the job,” Black said.

Kephart confirmed that St. John’s has proposed renovating the Friendship Center to convert office space into shelter space, adding eight to 12 emergency shelter beds. She also said the organization would look into adding a second facility or moving into a larger space in the future.

Black asked whether DSS had assurances that the center would welcome everyone, given that St. John’s is a religious organization. Kephart said the RFP process spelled out requirements that providers be inclusive.

“I feel pretty secure that (St. John’s) understands that, and we will be in conversation with them if we notice anything,” she said.

As the county moves into negotiations, there are still several unknowns: how the county will maintain continuous services as they transition between organizations; what St. John’s start-up costs will look like; and how services and facilities will change under the new leadership.

DSS will propose budget adjustments at Monday’s Expanded Budget Committee Meeting and will return to HHS to seek approval once a contract is finalized.

The Voice will post updates as they become available.

Devon Magliozzi

Devon Magliozzi is a reporter for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact her at dmagliozzi@ithacavoice.com or 607-391-0328.