ITHACA, N.Y. — Opportunities, Alternatives, and Resources (OAR) of Ithaca signed a lease Thursday to establish a Crisis Outreach Center downtown. This space, which will only be open by appointment, will consolidate the wide-ranging efforts of OAR and other community organizations that support Ithacans in need. 

The Center is opening up as a collaboration among three local organizations: OAR, Second Wind Cottages—a not-for-profit group that provides housing to homeless men and women across Tompkins County—and the Respectable, Equitable Access to Compassionate Healthcare (REACH) Project, which works with individuals who typically face stigma in healthcare settings. In addition to its mobile COVID-19 testing outreach program, members of the REACH Project have been supporting Ithaca’s unhoused population through telehealth visits and other medical services. 

Richard Rivera, an outreach worker with OAR who raised $1,000 to acquire the lease, said that the Center will remain open until August 2021. 

“For the next six months, we (will) provide hands-on service for particular clients,” he said. “What we’re doing that’s different is we’re thinking outside the box; We have the resources of different organizations that each contribute on their own time.” 

Mr. Rivera and Deb Wilke, Homeless Crisis Alleviation Coordinator for Second Wind Cottages, are involved in community-wide efforts that distribute needed supplies to and build relationships with vulnerable members of the community. Outreach workers like Wilke and Rivera have supported Ithacans in need by providing them with clothing, transportation, meals, medical supplies and more. 

Other community organizations have been working to keep Ithacans warm through the winter months—Loaves & Fishes has a Community Warming Space downtown where people can stop in to escape cold weather. The Crisis Outreach Center is different, though, because it provides access to electricity to charge phones, a kettle to make hot drinks for clients, internet and a printer for staff. Rivera said that the Center will be adhering to CDC guidelines to ensure the safety of clients, and additionally emphasized the importance of respecting confidentiality. 

“We may have five people there at one time—six people—but they will all be receiving services in an individualized manner,” he said. 

Rivera also denoted the importance of the Center’s location, saying that it will make it easier for vulnerable members of the community to access the array of services it offers. 

‘The reason why this is significant is because this place is centrally located at the crossroads of West Village, Main Street, South Side and the Encampments,” Rivera said. 

Wilke echoed the sentiment. 

“We’re hoping that the proximity to the (Encampments) will make it easier for people to come inside (…) (where) we can assist them with accessing services,” she said. 

REACH Project health workers will also reap the benefits of the Crisis Outreach Center because the space can accommodate telemedicine screenings and potentially serve as a vaccination site in the future. Although Tompkins County received hundreds of COVID-19 vaccine doses this week, it remains unclear when unhoused Ithacans will have access to the vaccine. Wilke said acquiring doses of the vaccine is a complicated process in itself because it depends on how well outreach workers can mobilize people who are unhoused. 

“If you don’t utilize them within a certain timeframe, you’re not going to be provided with additional vaccines in the future,” she said. “It’s kind of complicated to determine a number to order and get them used within the proper time frame.” 

Wilke continued, expressing how she and Rivera would make the necessary arrangements ahead of time. 

“If you have the vaccines and you communicate with us when they’re coming, we will get the people to you (…) to make this work.” 

With the help of REACH Project health workers and contact tracers from the Tompkins County Health Department, volunteers from OAR and Second Wind Cottages have been able to contain outbreaks of COVID-19 at the Encampments; As of last month, there have only been two cases among residents living in what is commonly referred to as The Jungle

The Crisis Outreach Center is located on 225 S Fulton Street, Suite A in the Groundswell office space. It is not a drop-in service center and will operate on a needed basis by appointment every day except Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

James Baratta

James Baratta is a New York-based journalist and writer. He is a graduate of Ithaca College where he earned a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism. His work has appeared in POLITICO, Truthout and Common Dreams....