ITHACA, N.Y.—Code Blue, the program in place in Tompkins County to house homeless individuals during the bitter cold winter months, ended its official guaranteed season on April 15 for the year, though New York State sees a few left over cold, snowy days and nights throughout the early spring. At a Health and Human Services Committee meeting toward the end of March, it was reported that there were more than 150 individuals who were utilizing the Code Blue program.

From November 15 through April 15, counties in New York State are required to seek out people who are unhoused whenever the weather drops below freezing at night and at least offer them shelter, either in an emergency shelter (like the St. John’s Community Services facility on West State Street) or in a local participating hotel. The state reimburses counties for expenses incurred during Code Blue.

Kit Kephart, commissioner of Social Services for Tompkins County, explained that while the official season of Code Blue contracted with New York State ends April 15, there are shoulder seasons throughout the spring that Tompkins County takes into account, and individuals utilizing the program won’t get kicked out on that date as winter and cold nights persist.

Chris Teitelbaum, program supervisor for St. John’s Community Services (SJCS), said that over the past few weeks as the end-date drew closer, case managers at the Department of Social Services (DSS) have been assisting individuals with finding other housing options.

When the weather shifts into summer with nights no longer turning cold, Kephart said, individuals may lack shelter if they haven’t applied for various programs that secure them alternate housing.

“Some of these folks are, unfortunately, potentially facing being on the street. We’ve been reminding people that Code Blue is ending and that they risk being out of shelter if they have not gotten temporary housing assistance,” Teitelbaum said.

SJCS’s case managers generally work with about a third of the homeless folks in the county, specifically those who have mental health crises or disabilities that leave them needing more help.

Mainly, Teitelbaum said, SJCS acts as a middleman to help individuals navigate services that are available to them. “We’re just advocating for people to get down to DSS and get HHAP [Homeless Housing and Assistance Program], which means that social services will pay for their shelter.”

When it was initially executed, Code Blue was never meant to be a housing solution but rather an emergency program to keep people safe during unsafe temperatures.

“To be honest, it’s a bandaid that unfortunately has become a system,” Teitelbaum said, explaining that while not every homeless individual in the county utilizes the program, the vast majority do.

The primary funding that DSS utilizes is called Temporary Housing Assistance (THA) through the Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, which is available year-round to those experiencing homelessness and offers wraparound services rather than just housing.

“We really help evaluate what all the services are that somebody might have, we can make referrals for additional supports like mental health, substance abuse assessments and employment support,” Kephart said, adding that they also connect people with food stamp programs like Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programs (SNAP) and sign them up for Medicaid whenever possible.

There are also services that have come around specifically related to COVID-19, like the Emergency Solutions Grant-COVID (ESG-CV), which is part of the CARES Act and provides rapid rehousing assistance for people who are in living in unsanctioned or unsafe places, like the encampment in Ithaca known as “the Jungle.” (The City of Ithaca just introduced a new program called The Ithaca Designated Encampment Site or TIDES, which will be officially proposed some time later this spring.)

The ESG program is intended to help people get back on their feet — homeless individuals at 50% or less of the average median income will qualify for the ESG program, and if they do have income, they’re required to contribute 30% of their income toward rent. “Your one-to-one part of ESG is free housing for people living in a place not meant for habitation,” Kephart said. “It’s limited to the fair market rental rates.”

The last program that DSS works with regularly in regard to establishing housing for homeless individuals is called the Solutions to End Homelessness (STEP) program, and offers services similar to ESG. Also focusing on rapid rehousing, STEP works with the Continuum of Care to help with rental arrears to repay back rent.

As a result of the pandemic, Kephart said, DSS has seen a lot of individuals consolidate and downsize in regard to housing, though there’s still a population lacking housing altogether. “There are people that we see that struggle with having enough income and being able to manage all their needs, and we encourage them to come to DSS and apply for these programs.”

Teitelbaum said he hopes that by the restart of Code Blue in fall 2022, SJCS will have its church partners back to provide the more standard shelter system that was used prior to COVID rather than spreading people out at motels.

Zoë Freer-Hessler

Zoë Freer-Hessler is a general assignment reporter for the Ithaca Voice. She has covered a wide range of topics since joining the news organization in November 2021. She can be reached at zhessler@ithacavoice.com...