ITHACA, N.Y. — Youth homelessness is a persistent issue in Tompkins County, even if it’s not always visible. Right now, about 50 people between the ages of 16 and 24 in the county are considered unhoused. For young people, this could look like couch surfing, staying on the move at night, or moving most days of the month.
A coalition of invested groups and community members has taken up the challenge to house all homeless youth and young adults between the ages of 16 and 24 in Ithaca and Tompkins County by early August.
Tompkins County was selected as one of four communities nationally this May to take on a 100-day challenge to end youth homelessness. The communities are supported by the Rapid Results Institute, a nonprofit organization that designed the 100-day methodology and helps groups reach their benchmarks with an ultimate goal of systemic change. Why 100 days? RRI says the “act of setting a goal that feels almost impossible elevates teams to new ways of working and intense levels of collaboration.”
Some of the sub-goals include by day 25 of the challenge, finding three landlords who will house young people, and by the last day, identifying and testing three alternative housing models and making sure all of the unhoused young people have a designated sponsor and advocate.
Tompkins County is joining more than 20 communities across the country that have taken part in RRI’s challenge to prevent and end youth homelessness, building on the goals laid out in a federal strategy to end homelessness. According to RRI, 2,485 youth and young adults have been stably housed as a result of communities completing the 100-day challenge.
Though the county does maintain a list of youth in need of housing, it can be a hard population to track. Liddy Bargar, coordinator of housing initiatives at the Human Services Coalition, said youth who are unhoused are often staying with friends and moving often, and though they may be couch surfing and without a stable home, do not necessarily consider themselves homeless.
“It makes them a pretty invisible population,” Bargar said.
Semi-regularly, an Independent Living Survey is conducted in Tompkins County that examines the issue of local youth homelessness. The most recent survey available is based on 2015 data, and to connect with homeless youth, the study team engaged a group of formerly homeless youth as research partners who were able to find individuals not connected to programs or services. For the 2015 survey, they found 208 people in the county who were 24 or younger and lacked a “fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.”
As a report based on the survey results states, housing instability can affect all areas of a young person’s life including “education, jobs, finances, and interpersonal relationships — making it nearly impossible to reach the milestones that typical adolescents and young adults achieve as they prepare for independence.”
Many youth don’t identify themselves as homeless, even when they don’t have a safe place to call home, the survey summary says. They often piece together a patchwork of temporary housing situations but don’t identify with “homeless,” which often brings up images of people living on the street.
Finding a place to live when your housing situation becomes unstable can be very difficult in housing-strained Ithaca, even for people who have a job and steady income. That was the case a few years ago for Ithaca resident Harmony Malone, who struggled to find stable housing for several months before getting help from the Learning Web, a local organization that connects youth with programs and mentorship. Though Malone is now has a stable living situation – she’s a board member of the Learning Web, has an apartment and is very involved in the community – there was a stretch of a few months the winter after she finished college when she did not have housing.
“I ended up spending some nights at my job or walking around Downtown Ithaca or couch surfing, what have you, just to find a place to rest,” she said.
Though she was working and making money at the time, it wasn’t enough with her other bills for a security deposit or rent. She said it finally got to a point where she had to ask for help, and she got connected to the youth outreach program of the Learning Web, which got her on the path to stable housing.
“Here in Ithaca, there are opportunities and programs for youth to get out of that situation,” Malone said. “There is help.”
For people in similar situations, Malone said there are lots of resources available in Ithaca. She recommends people reach out to the Learning Web, local churches, and community centers like the Greater Ithaca Activities Center. Malone said she hopes this 100-day challenge creates more opportunities for young people and helps provide more stable housing for youth. “I hope that it at least provides resources and that it doesn’t just end with a conversation,” she said.
The challenge is bringing together people from various service organizations across the community to house the 50 homeless youth registered in the community’s coordinated assessment system. On the team are staff from Tompkins Community Action, the Advocacy Center, Ithaca Urban Renewal Agency, First Congregational Church, the Learning Web, Family & Children’s Services, Youth Employment Services, Tompkins County DSS Children’s Services, Child Development Council and the Human Services Coalition.
The community has made some strides recently in supportive housing for young people, with the opening of Amici House on Spencer Road. In addition to the 50 young people who need housing right now, 26 young adults and nine children moved into Amici House, which is operated by Tompkins Community Action. The five-story building has 23 units of supportive housing, which were filled quickly after it opened.
In an interview in March about the opening of Amici House, Lee Dillon, executive director of TCAction, said there is a clear need for this housing in the community. Before the youth and young adults came to live at Amici House, she said they were in shelters, outside, with friends or couch surfing. She said then if another Amici House opened, it would also fill right up.
“We’re having a housing crisis in Tompkins County and it is affecting every age group and everybody imaginable,” Dillon said. “Rents are rivaling Westchester and New York City. Nobody can afford to live here.”
Amici House is an example of not only housing young people but surrounding them with support. The secure building has a commercial-grade kitchen, a child care center with a playground, and conference space.
In addition to finding housing for the dozens of vulnerable youth in the community, part of the challenge will be to surround them with support.
“We’re hoping that by surrounding people with these circles of support, they’re better prepared to not only get housing, but stay housed,” Bargar said.
To learn more about the 100-Day Challenge, follow its progress on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. In particular, challenge members are looking to connect with landlords to form sustainable partnerships.