ITHACA, N.Y. — As the end of the Code Blue period approaches, officials said people experiencing housing insecurity and homelessness spiked this year as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the increased population was forced to rely on an array of emergency services to make it through the winter season.

For more than a decade, a network of 39 local organizations and agencies has collaborated to help address homelessness in Tompkins County—providing food, energy assistance and emergency housing. Their collective work has essentially created a safety net for people experiencing homelessness who are living in the encampments—commonly referred to as the Jungle—and other people elsewhere in Tompkins County who are housing insecure. This network is known as the Continuum of Care (CoC).

The Human Services Coalition of Tompkins County (HSC) and several community groups comprise the Enhanced Street Outreach team, a committee of sorts that directly engages people experiencing homelessness and housing insecurity. Although HSC doesn’t engage frontline services, its role is to convene bi-monthly community planning conversations that allow CoC member agencies to hash out plans that address community needs. 

Temporary Housing Assistance, or Code Blue during colder weather, is at the core of CoC’s operations. 

Code Blue activates when the weather is forecasted to be 32 degrees or lower. According to the Department of Social Services (DSS), the County makes staffing arrangements to implement Code Blue from Dec. 1 to April 15. Once an individual enters emergency shelter, DSS encourages them to apply for permanent housing services. 

Shelter

DSS and St. John’s Community Services (SJCS) have worked together to provide emergency shelter at the St. Johns Community Center (SJCC) in Ithaca, which has long been the nexus of Temporary Housing Assistance in Tompkins County. 

In 2019, SJCC could temporarily shelter 22 people. As a result of the coronavirus pandemic, the shelter has reduced the number of people per room from two to one—reducing its capacity to 13. Additionally, staff has maintained CDC guidelines by installing moisture droplet screens—provided by Lehman Alternative Community School (LACS)—and through physical distancing measures. In addition to Temporary Housing Assistance, SJCS offers a wide array of services to its clients. Caseworkers distribute donated clothing and meals, provide short and long-term storage for people’s belongings, administer referrals to outreach services like the Respectable, Equitable Access to Compassionate Healthcare (REACH) project and establish personal connections with people in need. 

SJCS Program Supervisor Chris Teitelbaum drew parallels between the shelter and functions of a train station. 

“A lot of traffic comes through it and our case managers (are) sort of the conductors and schedule-keepers,” he said. “There’s a lot of (coordination) to make sure that the people that rely upon us to essentially authorize them having a roof over their head in a time of crisis.” 

SJCC, which is located at 618 W State St in Ithaca, isn’t the only space offering emergency shelter in the County. 

“The Code Blue program has been a 100 percent reimbursed program,” DSS Commissioner Kit Kephart said via email, meaning that while the county foots the bill up-front, that money is reimbursed by New York State. “Sheltering is provided at the local homeless shelter run by St. John’s Community Services and clients are sheltered in the local shelter and in some congregate spaces within local churches and occasionally local hotels.” 

“St. John’s Community Center has done an outstanding job throughout the health crisis in following all COVID-19 related protocols and safety precautions that has limited risk and allowed the shelter to stay fully able to serve people in need,” Kephart continued. “They have reduced the number of congregate beds that are offered at the shelter which has resulted in a slight increase in use of non-congregate settings for sheltering persons.”

Prior to the pandemic, SJCS directly contracted local motels to provide Temporary Housing Assistance for individuals considered to be hazardous (i.e. sex offenders) and families in their own rooms. Over the winter season, SJCS has continued to contract local motels. Teitelbaum said that there have been between 100 and 120 people in emergency shelter under Code Blue; this does not include 22 people who are unsheltered and an undisclosed number of individuals who are fleeing domestic violence. 

For people experiencing homelessness, though, the trek from the encampments to emergency shelters is not just a matter of getting from point A to B. 

Transportation services for those either dealing with homelessness or housing insecurity have been hit with a double whammy over the past few months. Throughout the winter season, at least a handful of snowstorms have battered the Southern Tier region. The impacts of this inclement weather have been far-reaching. In early February, Tompkins County Area Transit (TCAT) temporarily suspended its bus services in response to a Nor’Easter that swept the Finger Lakes region in early February. This short-lived hindrance reflects an ongoing issue exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic—transportation security. 

There have been several COVID-19 exposures on TCAT bus routes in recent months, placing potentially infected commuters and their close contacts at risk. For homeless people living in the Encampments, the scarcity of transportation is nothing new. Outreach workers have tried to fill this gap by providing individualized transportation for their clients. Despite this goodwill, falling temperatures, windchill and snowfall have been nothing short of life-threatening to the County’s homeless population. 

“I got a message from somebody yesterday and they said ‘we’re out of wood and we’re out of propane,’” Deb Wilke, homeless crisis alleviation coordinator at Second Wind Cottages, told The Ithaca Voice in early February. 

Wilke is one of many outreach workers dedicated to supporting homeless and housing insecure people locally. She said that inclement weather often causes tents and makeshift shelters in the Encampments to collapse. Wilke explained that people experiencing homelessness are more likely to resort to human hibernation rather than leave their belongings unattended.  

“What we’ve found over the years is when you encounter this type of weather, people just hunker down,” she said. “They don’t leave their structure because it’s too cold.” 

“Going to the shelter (…) sounds like what we would do if we were cold outside, but (…) it’s tricky,” Wilke said, adding that homeless people are reluctant to make the journey because of transportation scarcity and inclement weather conditions. 

Food

Loaves & Fishes of Tompkins County, a Christian ministry that dishes out free meals to those in need, has greatly expanded its services since the start of the novel coronavirus pandemic. 

After shuttering its dining hall doors in March 2020, Loaves & Fishes devised new ways to carry out its age-old mission. It wasn’t long until the Christian ministry began providing meals to SJCS and other outreach organizations for their clients. Rev. Christina Culver, director of Loaves & Fishes, said that the organization is feeding more people than ever before. 

People are still getting entrees like a piece of meat or a casserole or some kind of soup, chili,” she said. “The quality of the meals and the nutritional value has remained high.”

From April 1, 2020, to  March 31, 2021, Loaves & Fishes served 53,500 meals; this translates to approximately 4,500 meals each month, 1,200 meals each week and 225 meals every weekday. This has been quite a jump from 2019, which was when the organization served 31,000 meals over the course of a 12-month period. 

Volunteers with Loaves & Fishes and outreach workers from various frontline agencies also make weekly deliveries to the Encampments, dropping meals off at designated locations. 

“We’ve had to partner up with people who go there more regularly,” Rev. Culver said. “So there’s even a phone tree when we’re coming—everyone gets called.” 

Then on Dec. 2, Loaves & Fishes established its Community Warming Space in the Tompkins County Public Library. Since then, the Christian ministry has been able to maintain the space rent-free. It’s a place for people to relax, catch their breath and stop in to escape the cold. It has become the organization’s new hub for case management services. Since opening, there have been over 1,400 visits — nearly one-half of which have been people who come to the Community Warming Space twice per day. 

Loaves & Fishes staffers distribute hot beverages, to-go dinners, snacks and—in some cases—emergency funds in the form of gas cards, bus passes and more. Outreach Workers from the Family & Children’s Service of Ithaca and volunteers with Catholic Charities also visit the space to offer advocacy services. 

“If people are in crisis (…) a lot of the time they’re told to come to Loaves & Fishes for some help,” Culver said. “People will just show up with a problem and we’ll help them deal with it.” 

The Community Warming Space is open weekdays from 9:00 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and it’s located at 101 E Green St in the Borg Warner Room of the Tompkins County Public Library.

Loaves & Fishes isn’t alone in this meal-delivery network. Organizations like Mutual Aid Tompkins (MAT), Foodnet Meals on Wheels and the Food Bank of the Southern Tier are collectively engaged in efforts dedicated to feeding community members in need. MAT—a network of volunteers, resources and community leaders ensuring people have the capacity to meet their basic human needs—has established outdoor food sharing cabinets across the County that volunteers frequently restock with non-perishable food items. 

A schedule and list of food pantries in the Ithaca area can be found on HSC’s website, which is linked here. 

Outreach

The collaboration of these frontline agencies has created a safety net for people who are housing insecure in the County. 

Whether that entails bringing heaters to homeless people living in the encampments or storing someone’s belongings at a secure location, outreach workers are there to support people who are struggling to meet their basic needs. These well-organized efforts are multifaceted and rely on the financial support of individual benefactors and nonprofit organizations like United Way of Tompkins County (UWTC). 

UWTC funds and supports organizations focused on the County’s homeless population through the 2020-2021 Community Care Fund (CCF). These organizations include Second Wind Cottages, Loaves & Fishes, Catholic Charities, The Learning Web, SJCS, Habitat for Humanity of Tompkins County, Ithaca Neighborhood Housing (INHS), Human Services Coalition of Tompkins County (HSC) and Opportunities, Alternatives, and Resources (OAR). 

Richard Rivera, an outreach worker with OAR, has been at the frontline of humanitarian assistance in the Encampments. Rivera, Deb Wilke and a band of like-minded volunteers have maintained this safety net through direct outreach: delivering gravity showers, portable toilets, hot water, heaters, propane, clothing, meals and medical supplies. And with the help of REACH Medical, housing insecure Ithacans have been able to access telehealth services, Hepatitis C treatment and medications that mitigate the use of illicit opioids. 

Through a collaborative effort among REACH Project health workers and Tompkins County Health Department contact tracers, outreach workers have been able to contain outbreaks of COVID-19 in the Encampments. As of last month, there have only been two cases among homeless people living there. According to Rivera, there are less than 20 people who currently live in the Encampments—an almost 33% decrease from last year. 

Efficacy lies in direct engagement,” he said. “Instead of broken human beings, we have a collection of unconventional human beings—and we have to change that conventionality.” 

This efficacy lies in the mass mobilization of outreach workers, volunteers and healthcare specialists. Rev. Culver of Loaves & Fishes spoke to the concerted nature of these efforts. 

“The flexibility and genuine desire to make sure we’re finding people who normally fall through the cracks (and getting) their basic needs met has really been (…) quite moving,” Culver said. “I think it’s not to be taken for granted that all of these collaborations have deepened and expanded.”

“It really takes this kind of collaboration to make significant differences,” she continued. “Agencies alone can do it—sure—but to have a team of people working together really does help more people in terms of actual effect.” 

James Baratta

James Baratta (@jamesjbarattata) is a freelance journalist from Long Island, New York. He will graduate from Ithaca College in May 2022 with a B.A. in journalism and a minor in sociology.