ITHACA, N.Y.—The City of Ithaca is discussing a plan to formalize relations with “the Jungle,” the de facto homeless encampment on city land in Southwest Park. It is called TIDES: The Ithaca Designated Encampment Site.

The plan has not yet been approved, or even “officially” proposed, but was presented for the first time at the city’s Planning and Economic Development meeting Wednesday night (the presentation and discussion can be seen here, while the memo of the unofficial proposal can be seen here on page 3). Essentially, it would initiate a partnership between the City of Ithaca and partner organizations to build kitchen, shower and bathroom facilities in the Jungle, as well as 25 individual cabins or structures that would serve up to 50 people at once.

In addition to new buildings, there would be 24/7 “on-site management and support by homeless professionals,” including a security detail, plus open and safe access for emergency services personnel. At this point, a sobriety requirement is not mentioned, setting TIDES apart from most other supportive housing in Ithaca.

Residents in TIDES must be at least 18, commit to an engagement plan, abide by harm reduction protocols (such as needle disposals), be a good neighbor to others in the program and nearby businesses and realize that TIDES residence can be revoked. The City of Ithaca would provide water and sewer infrastructure, under the current proposal.

“It’s about meeting people where they’re at, what they are comfortable with,” said Chris Teitelbaum, of the St. John’s Community Services. “We’re talking about a space where, for up to 50 individuals, we can meet them where they’re at and begin doing that work to acclimate them to being around other people in close proximity, and to be able to interact and come back into the community from both a social and economic aspect.”

The downside, though is that it could also harshen regulations on people who are homeless but do not live in the Jungle. The establishment of TIDES comes with some caveats, most prominently that it would allow the city to actually enforce the no-camping policy that is on the books but rarely employed. If someone is camping on public property outside of the TIDES zone, they will be told to leave—punishment is unclear but the city, county and outreach workers would be responsible for overseeing the removal of their material belongings from their campsites. Plus, something that likely needs to be answered in the formal proposal is what happens to the overflow homeless population — even now, during the summer months, the Jungle can easily surpass 50 people, and that was even before the COVID-19 pandemic.

That was the root of one of Alderperson Phoebe Brown’s concerns, as she noted that the vast majority of Jungle inhabitants are white. This is true, as while there are some people of color who live or frequent there, they are usually few and far between. Teitelbaum acknowledged that, and said there would be outreach done by a diverse staff to try to bring those who are homeless but don’t currently feel comfortable living in the Jungle community, for any number of reasons, to come there once TIDES is established.

Acting Mayor Laura Lewis expressed her support for the idea, albeit knowing that it would need to be fleshed out more when it returns to PEDC next month. It was created by a working group that included Teitelbaum, Alderpersons Cynthia Brock and George McGonigal, Tompkins County Legislator Rich John and more homeless community advocates. John mentioned that he believes the city needs to lead the charge on the issue, because a definitive vote of support from the city would provoke more support from the community, and put more pressure on Tompkins County to get involved as well.

For a long time, the City of Ithaca has adopted an “out of sight, out of mind” approach with the Jungle, albeit in a more tacit manner. While technically illegal, the people who live there were very often left unbothered or monitored by city staffers and police, for the most part. That began to change in earnest late last year, when the Jungle’s population grew, forcing outward encampment expansion that caused some tension with neighboring developments, like Nate’s Floral Estates mobile home park to name one. Increased calls for petty theft at big box stores along South Meadow Street is another oft-cited result of the population growth.

Thus, TIDES, the result of meetings that began in fall of 2021 but truly the culmination of years of similar plans being discussed in a less formal way. As it has always been, the city’s goal appears to not be encouraging people to stay in the Jungle indefinitely, though some homeless advocates prefer that approach, but to provide “a supportive step on the way to permanent housing.”

“This is a temporary stop for people on the way to finding permanent housing,” Teitelbaum said. “In no way are we saying we want to create an encampment where people stay the rest of their lives. This is a space that people can come with dignity, receiving services, staffed 24 hours a day.”

“There are three City‐owned properties in the Cherry Street District that could be used for this program: Ithaca Urban Renewal Agency‐controlled property at the end of Cherry Street, a City‐owned parcel behind Lowes, and the Southwest Park site behind Walmart,” the group’s memo states. “Our group feels the preferred location for our proposal would be a 4‐acre section of Southwest Park.”

The health and safety of the population that usually lives in the Jungle is one of the primary goals of TIDES. During the winter, the Jungle’s population falls, especially because most people who live there do not have encampments suited with enough warmth to survive the brutal Ithaca winters. Those that do stay face their own risks, though, since heating equipment is the culprit of many of the frequent fires in the Jungle — and the wooded nature of the Jungle makes it difficult for emergency crews to effectively respond when called.

“It doesn’t appear that the population is going to dwindle in any significant way naturally,” said IURA Director Nels Bohn of the unhoused population in Ithaca. “Our supply of permanent supportive housing and transitional housing, while increasing slightly, is still very modest.”

Bohn said (in raw form) about 600 people show up as unhoused in the city each year, with 400 finding housing, 100 “hard to track,” and the remaining 100-125 remaining homeless.

“It’s been a long time, I’m excited about being here, I don’t think we’ve ever been this close,” said Carmen Guidi, founder of Second Wind Cottages and a member of the working group that created the TIDES proposal. He said Second Wind has been successful because it provides people and community to those who have undergone trauma severe enough to force them into homelessness — a similar sentiment to the TIDES proposal. “I’ve been a part of a lot of working groups and task forces and they always seem to dead-end. […] These people are part of our community, why shouldn’t they have access to the same response as everyone else?”

Matt Butler

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