ITHACA, N.Y.—A cadre of politicians made their way through “the Jungle” on Wednesday morning, examining Ithaca’s de facto homeless encampment as officials mull ways to address the city’s unhoused population.

Tompkins County Legislator Mike Sigler and Ithaca Common Council member Cynthia Brock represented local elected officials, while two Republican candidates for higher office, Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro (running for the U.S. House of Representatives) and former Binghamton Mayor Rich David (running for New York State Senate), also joined.

The group was accompanied by Ithaca Police Department Acting Chief John Joly and Sgt. Thomas Condzella as well as Officer Ryan Card. Card said he has built a rapport with some of the Jungle residents during his time with IPD, though he noted that he isn’t able to spend as much time there as he would have been previously, in part due to staffing. It was announced that Trumansburg Mayor Rordan Hart had been invited to attend, but he was not present.

While the number of residents was far reduced than its summer heights, those in attendance were still able to visit with several residents, some of whom were eager to discuss their situation.

“Are they here to protect you?” asked one Jungle resident, referring to the police accompaniment, during the group’s 90-minute walk.

“They might be here to protect you from us,” quipped Molinaro.

“That might be right,” responded the resident.

The group traversed two of the main sites for homeless encampments in the city of Ithaca, behind the big box stores like Walmart and near Cecil Malone Drive next to Wegmans, though there are a few other main spots.

Molinaro talks to a Jungle resident Wednesday morning. Credit: Matt Butler / The Ithaca Voice

Primarily, one question was posed to the five or so residents who interacted with the group: “What would make things better for you here?”

Ideas gathered from the residents ranged widely. One resident stated that she wanted more law enforcement support in the Jungle, an expanded presence that could alleviate fears she has over thefts of her property.

Theft is one of the most prominent issues in the Jungle, both in that people fear losing their relatively few possessions and that it discourages residents from leaving their encampments, either to seek shelter during bad weather or to seek social services downtown. The same resident stated she wished she could receive a prescription for a bicycle so she could get hers replaced free of charge or hassle whenever it is stolen.

Another resident described struggling with drug addiction, combined with living in the Jungle since a break-up about a year ago. Police on scene gave him some directions to addiction rehabilitation services downtown, and the phone number for the REACH Medical Clinic, which has been conducting telehealth appointments for Jungle residents regularly since early in the COVID-19 pandemic.

The visit took place as discussions over the homeless issue locally gain momentum in myriad ways. The Ithaca Designated Encampment Sites (TIDES) proposal is being examined at the city level but its prospects for actual implementation are murky. Meanwhile, City of Ithaca officials have begun to form a task force dedicated to handling homelessness, though the exact charge of that group is unclear currently.

Molinaro spoke extensively about an approach he feels has been successful in Dutchess County, prompted by the TIDES proposal that had been explained by Brock, who’s been one of the main proponents of the plan locally. Molinaro drew parallels between TIDES and Dutchess County’s approach, though he didn’t feel informed enough about TIDES to comment on it directly.

“It’s an intense focus on social service and mental health services for a core group of people who are chronically dealing with housing instability and homelessness,” he said. “By doing that, we’ve been able to centralize where we have to deliver service, we know who we’re dealing with. By centralizing that and being able to intervene in the right moment, we’re impacting the lives of the individuals but also bending the curve on Medicaid costs and expenditures for the county.”

Matt Butler

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