The Human Services Building on Ithaca's West State Street, and where Tompkins County DSS is located. (Jeff Stein/Ithaca Voice)

TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y. – Requests for emergency shelter beds in Tompkins County are dramatically higher this winter than last, according to the Department of Social Services. The agency said about 88 people per night were requesting shelter by the end of December 2018, nearly double the nightly average last winter.

The county is required to provide shelter to anyone who requests it on days when temperatures or windchills dip below 32 degrees, in keeping with New York’s Code Blue policy. At Monday’s meeting of the Tompkins legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee, DSS Commissioner Kit Kephart said Code Blue’s lack of eligibility requirements is likely responsible for some of the uptick in shelter requests.

“There’s concern that some people, because the eligibility requirements around Code Blue are non-existent, there’s some concern there are people using it that may not really need it,” Kephart said.

Because Tompkins does not have enough shelter beds to meet demand, many people requesting shelter under Code Blue are housed temporarily in hotel rooms. Kephart said the appeal of staying in a hotel room might increase demand for shelter services.

“We have seen some people, when they are offered a non-hotel room, they decline and say they have other options,” she said.

DSS is working with St. John’s Community Services, the organization that operates the emergency shelter on State Street formerly run by the Rescue Mission, to provide more shelter beds in local churches.

Related: Tompkins enters negotiations with St. John’s Community Services to provide homeless services

Kephart said about 11 people per night are being housed at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Ithaca, and a church in Danby will likely open its gymnasium space soon. St. John’s will provide staffing, as well as sleeping mats and bedrolls, at any auxiliary shelter locations.

In the meantime, with Code Blue funds for the whole season set to run out by early February, the Health and Human Services Committee voted unanimously in favor of authorizing $700,000 in increased spending on the program. Code Blue expenses are 100 percent reimbursable by the state, and hotel and shelter stays are reimbursed at the same rate.

Kephart said DSS “would obviously spend whatever we need to house people,” in keeping with the law, but welcomes statewide discussions of eligibility requirements for Code Blue services. She and county administrator Jason Molino said they hope lawmakers in Albany propose longer-term solutions, such as funding for transitional housing programs, within the year.

Devon Magliozzi

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