ITHACA, N.Y.—Assisting the homeless in Ithaca is a constantly evolving effort, one that seemingly always demands more resources as Tompkins County continues to tout itself as a bastion for those seeking social services in the area.

Those efforts were given an unprecedented boost last month, as the Tompkins County Continuum of Care was awarded a landmark $1 million annual grant to be used for assisting the local youth homeless population in a variety of ways. Tompkins County is one of just 33 communities nationwide that were selected to receive the annual funding, and even local officials were taken by surprise when they were notified.

“It’s a competitive application, it’s a difficult application,” said Liddy Bargar, the Director of Housing Initiatives for the Human Services Coalition of Tompkins County. “When we submitted it, I hit send and thought ‘Well, that was a good exercise.’ I didn’t really have super high hopes about our selection.”

Bargar said the grant represents a sizable percentage increase from the normal funding that is dedicated each year to youth homelessness in Tompkins County. During the kick-off call in October, Homebase’s Nora Lally — one of the main people in charge of helping local officials implement the plans — explained that the initial grant (actually just short of $2 million, at $1,996,523) will be spread out over the first two years, and is annually renewable at just under one million dollars after that through the federal government.

“It gets added into our guaranteed money that we know is coming to our community in an ongoing way,” Bargar said. “It allows us to have sustainable projects. We can pilot things, and if we find that they’re working, we actually have a way to sustain those projects. And if they’re not working, we can replace them with something.”

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The money, provided through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, comes without too many strings attached — there is oversight, but Lally said the money is designed to stay within the community for the long-term if a municipality is selected into the program. The goals, while somewhat vague, of the Youth Homeless Demonstration Program are for communities to create a “coordinated community plan to prevent and end homelessness,” expand capacity of existing programs and pilot new models of assistance and support, build cross-system partnerships and build “natural momentum” to prevent and end youth homelessness.

“You didn’t have to know what you were going to do with the funding, we didn’t have to have projects ready or dollar amounts,” Bargar explained in October, when the award was given. “We had to show that we are a community with capacity, motivation, creativity and ability to manage this funding. Now we have six months to plan.”

Local need for expanded homeless services is also taken into consideration, and that certainly exists in Tompkins County. While youth homelessness can sometimes be hidden, as couch-surfing or sleeping on a friend’s floor are common, the problem still exists and can be very difficult to fix on an individual level, especially since the social services systems in Tompkins County are seemingly always teeming with people seeking help — particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The money does have to be used to support populations that are under 25 who are fleeing unsafe situations, actively homeless or at imminent risk of homelessness. As for more specific initiatives, the money can be used for supportive service expansion, transitional housing, rapid rehousing vouchers, permanent supportive housing, among several others — all components of the Continuum of Care.

Two million dollars is the type of funding stream that gives birth to plenty of new ideas and opportunities, both those that are new and those that have laid dormant for years without the necessary money to complete them.

“There’s an appetite to reimagine the entire homeless response system for young people,” Bargar said. “So that there are more direct and less traumatic routes from homeless to housed for young people. Right now, it’s a pretty bumpy road, so having a clearer pathway for young people about where to go [is a priority].”

One primary rule with the money is that it can’t be used to directly construct affordable housing, a source of frustration for some — like Sage Niver, a teenager who has experienced homelessness themselves (Niver uses they/them pronouns). Niver, who works at Village at Ithaca, said they frequently see new people, particularly young adults and youths, come to the organization desperately trying to find housing.

As with anything, there are obstacles — logistically and organizationally. Niver said one of their biggest sources of frustration, personally and among other Youth Action Board representatives, is trying to be heard amid a large group of collaborating organizations, all of which are run by adults. That’s especially true since Niver, and some of their colleagues, are actually going through the tribulations of youth homelessness — which is one of the primary reasons they were included as supposedly main voices in the grant application and planning direction.

“At the end of the day, you get to go home to your house, you get to sit here and leave your job and not have to think about this,” Niver said. “And we constantly have to be sitting here thinking about where we’re going to get our next meal or where we’re going to find a place to stay for tonight, where we’re going to keep all of our stuff for the next week or so, and how that’s affecting school, because everything has to be on a computer and nobody has WiFi when you’re homeless.”

Niver said their colleagues on the YAB had been researching properties to purchase with some of the money, happening upon a house that could have held nine units of housing which could have helped at least nine young people escape unstable housing for at least some amount of time. But, with the rules in place against using the money directly for housing (in the form of property purchases), those plans have been nixed.

Still, Niver expressed optimism about the potential opportunities the money would unlock, and the participation and input of the other organizations. With the caveat that plans are still under formulation, Niver has set their sights, at least in part, on immediate solutions that can help those feeling the acute brunt of homelessness, while introducing them to resources they can use to access longer term answers.

“Rapid re-housing would be my thing that I think is one of the best things that we know that we can do,” Niver said. “We can use our money to buy people hotel rooms for lengthy stays if they have to, until we can help them with finding [housing]. We’re trying to plan to hire social workers to be like case managers so that they can help once [people] are in these short term places, they can get to more long-term, permanent housing.”

Even beyond that, Niver is hoping the larger pie of financial capability means that the focus on youth voices is strengthened and maintained. The youth population that is couch-surfing, thinking ahead for their next meal or trying to figure out a way to get to school must be emphasized if that demographic’s struggle to find stable housing is to be cured.

“That’s the one thing that I want from this whole thing is just like to have the community be able to listen to our youth voices over the voices of people that have suppressed us,” they said.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story said Niver worked at the Ecovillage but they work at Village at Ithaca.

Matt Butler

Matt Butler is the Managing Editor at the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached by email at mbutler@ithacavoice.com