TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y.—Tompkins County continues to address homelessness within the community, including recently commissioning a Homelessness and Housing Needs assessment that looks at data, barriers and opportunities. Tompkins County, the City of Ithaca, the Human Services Coalition, the Continuum of Care (CoC) and Horn Research collaborated for the assessment.

The full Health and Human Services Committee meeting in which this assessment was discussed can be found here. The report itself can be found in the meeting agenda.

First, the CoC defines homelessness as an individual sleeping in a place not meant for human habitation, such as outdoors or in a car, or in an emergency shelter like those provided through the Department of Social Services, or individuals fleeing situations of domestic violence. Additionally, chronic homelessness is defined as an individual who has been continuously or cumulatively homeless for 12 months.

Supportive housing is affordable housing with additional support services, and permanent housing is private or supportive where tenants may stay indefinitely. The study utilized three measurements for its observations: length of stay, returns to homelessness and first-time homeless and chronic homelessness.

On average, in 2020, individuals would stay in an emergency shelter for 91 days, with 32% of individuals who exited becoming homeless again within two years. Forty-five percent of the homeless population in 2020 were chronically homeless.

In 2021 throughout the county, a bottleneck formed in the supportive housing programs — 22 beds were available for 122 individuals, and interviews with providers revealed that even with increased rent assistance programs, homeless individuals couldn’t find affordable permanent housing to move into, and low vacancy rates created even more of a barrier.

Simone Gatson, housing specialist at the Human Services Coalition of Topmkins County and Liddy Bargar, director of housing initiatives, presented recommendations to address the findings of the study. The primary recommendation is, predictably, to create more available permanent supportive housing, which has been found effective in ending the cycle of chronic homelessness. Building more affordable, low-cost units would allow the CoC to move individuals from emergency shelters and into better living conditions.

“When there are enough units available, you can use units first and quickly move someone out of homelessness into a permanent bed,” Bargar said. “Permanent supportive housing is not time-limited, and people can live there as long as they need or want to. It does come with person-centered wraparound services, which contribute to people’s success.”

One example of increased housing, though not permanent, would be the newly-introduced TIDES (The Ithaca Designated Encampment Site), a potential plan the city is mulling which would provide free housing in 25 cottages that would be constructed near where the Jungle, Ithaca’s largest homeless encampment, is located now.

Bargar explained that the “affordable housing” in the Tompkins County area is unaffordable for the population experiencing homelessness, so utilizing the term “low-cost housing” is more accurate and inclusive.

Another recommendation from the study’s data is enhanced assistance with navigating the resources available within the county.

“Based on qualitative interviews, navigating the system to attain housing support is challenging, especially for homeless individuals,” she said.

Other consideration groups of the study are the couch surfing population, homeless youths and people of color. With no specifically funded diversion efforts in place for couch-surfers, the population is considered at-risk for homelessness.

“We would consider this a prevention effort,” Bargar said. “Those folks who are couch-surfing or doubled-up right now are precariously close to entering our homeless response system, and we believe some targeted investments in that prevention could ease the burden on our homeless response system and make it so a person, in theory, doesn’t ever have to enter a shelter.”

The final recommendation is to expand capacity in the emergency shelters in the county. One of the appeals to expanding capacity is to help those with shelter as well as the services the shelter provides, like housing searches and case management.

Bargar said that staff has been hearing that individuals housed at motel sites are feeling disconnected from services provided in or close to the shelters. At the motels, there are no full-time shelter staff on-site, and individuals are farther away from the services they are in need of.

Following the presentation, Legislator Dan Klein asked about individuals in the encampments who don’t want to be housed somewhere with rules and structure.

Bargar said that people don’t want to be forced or compelled to do things, and that the Continuum of Care would “never recommend using housing as a ‘stick’ in any way. There are people who do not want to accept services of any sort, but also, perhaps the services we’re offering are not quite the right services yet.”

Lansing Village Trustee Randy Smith, attending the meeting, commented that he noticed that one of the report’s highlighted topics was the small amount of housing that’s even been built for low-income families. “As we look for solutions for the homeless, one of the things is no-cost housing. Is there any no-cost housing, has any no-cost housing been built?”

Bargar responded by saying that she is not aware of any no-cost housing. “In our community, I don’t think there’s any such thing as no-cost housing, even the transitional housing, there’s some cost to the tenants if they have some income. […] We need more of everything yesterday. We need broaden and deepen all of the housing options.”

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...