ITHACA, N.Y.—The familiar tent encampments are gradually beginning to pop up around Ithaca again, an annual accompaniment to warming weather as the area’s homeless population migrates outside after needing shelter for the winter.

In reaction to mounting complaints last year about encampments creeping closer to businesses and other residences, and particularly some confrontations between those living in encampments or tents and the residents of Nate’s Floral Estates mobile home park in summer and autumn, the City of Ithaca is grappling with how to best address the homeless population this year.

A report formulated and written by the Ithaca Urban Renewal Agency earlier this year gave a glimpse into what could be on the table for the city, though no final plans were chosen. The draft report was presented to the Homeless and Housing Task Force by IURA Director Nels Bohn in February.

Potential Strategies

The draft report makes it clear that the city does not view encampments as a sustainable way for homeless people to live, but largely blames its own housing situation for the issue — calling the existence of encampments “a failure to make homelessness rare, brief, and non-recurring.” It lists four strategies often employed when handling encampments (purely as a list, not as possibilities): clearance with little or no support to occupants, clearance with support to occupants, tacit acceptance (which has been Ithaca’s strategy to this point) and formal sanctioned encampments.

Clearing the encampments, even with supports in place, is downplayed by the report. Such a strategy has recently been employed by New York City Mayor Eric Adams, to at least some level of backlash. Moral arguments aside, the report argues that such a move would likely just displace the residents and they would form encampments at another site. Not to mention, such an undertaking is outside the purview and expertise of the agencies that would likely be responsible for it—which is listed as the city’s Department of Public Works.

“All told, a wiser use of city resources whenever possible is to invest in community-based solutions to expand low-barrier shelter beds available on terms acceptable to those occupying encampments,” states the report.

Public health is touted as one of the primary concerns of the report, and there are certain concerns that exist in the encampment that are unique to them. For instance, in “the Jungle,” while the coronavirus did not have an outsized impact, other infections can be passed around quickly. Fires from heaters or cooking instruments are fairly common, and undisposed garbage can attract rodents frequently.

Much of the city’s homeless population keeps to themselves, but a segment of them have increasingly caused problems for certain businesses in the West End and near “the Jungle,” the de facto homeless encampment behind the big box stores along Route 13, which regularly report thefts that are blamed on the homeless population. During warm weather, the homeless population has slowly grown over the last few years, likely boosted by the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on both the economy and certain facilities’ capacity to house people, as well as the overarching factors of Ithaca’s limited affordable housing market.

In the report’s words itself: “Encampments are an outshoot of the housing crisis coupled with poverty, mental illness, addiction to substances, and racial inequity, and represent a shortcoming in the community’s homeless response system even though the system works well to connect most people experiencing homelessness with services and housing.”

But for the last six or so months, the weather and state law has made it a far less visible issue. Once cold weather kicks in, New York State’s Code Blue policy mandates that people who are unhoused are offered shelter once the temperature drops below freezing, either in the emergency shelter (the St. John’s Community Services building on West State Street) or a nearby hotel. That policy ends April 15.

Figuring out “the Jungle”

The report says the wishes to enforce anti-camping policies in certain “high-sensitivity areas,” which it identifies as: public parks, designated natural areas, the Commons, areas targeted for redevelopment; locations near homes, schools or business entrances; recreation trails; waterfront areas (where sanitary facilities are not available); areas that “interfere with municipal operations and maintenance;” places that inhibit public use of city land and areas posted against trespassing.

According to the theory the draft report lays out, the city’s goals of keeping those areas clear of encampments can be achieved by clear communication between the city and those involved, including the homeless population, outreach workers and more.

Southwest Park, the formal name of the area where “the Jungle” is, is listed as a low-sensitivity area, in that enforcing the rules there would not be a high priority for the city until other mitigations are in place, namely that “realistic housing alternatives are available to be offered to persons living in an unsheltered encampment.”

One idea encouraged by the report is to use an “encampment advocacy agency” to work in collaboration with residents of encampments and city officials and can navigate issues between the two, particularly when it comes to public safety concerns. A suggestion the report lodges is that such an agency could provide a bathroom or handwashing facility near the encampment, plus regularly remove waste.

“The city’s approach to enforcement against encampments on city land should be strategic and guided by realistic understanding of the political will, cost, and resources needed for enforcement and clearance,” the report states, clearly showing that the plans laid out are not final, but just under consideration. “Moreover, an area cleared is often reestablished as an encampment location within a few months without vigilance. It is unwise to adopt a policy that will not be enforced on the ground.”

Finally, the report presents the current moment as an opportunity for change: with extra money from the American Recovery Plan, the City of Ithaca and Tompkins County should take advantage of the money (and any extra funding they can get) to invest in “facilities and services” to build on the systems already in place to help the homeless population. In procedural terms, a Request for Expression of Interest is suggested to gauge interest in local agencies and determine what kind of services are available.

Matt Butler

Matt Butler is the Education & Public Health Reporter at the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached by email at mbutler@ithacavoice.com