Editor’s Note: The following is Part II of “Spotlight: The crisis of Ithaca’s homeless,” the Ithaca Voice’s five-part series on homelessness for “Spotlight on Ithaca.”
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SYRACUSE, N.Y. — Ithaca’s unemployment rate is 3.6 percent. Syracuse’s is 6.4 percent.
Ithaca is growing, has seen only a handful of murder cases over the last several years, and is widely recognized as a rare economic success story in upstate New York.
Syracuse experienced more than 20 homicides in 2015 alone, faces intractable poverty and was recently found to have the single highest rate of extreme poverty among blacks and Hispanics in the United States.
So how do you make sense of the following statistics?
In 2015, Ithaca officials told the federal government that 16 people were living unsheltered in its city limits.
By contrast, only 13 people in Syracuse were found to be living unsheltered in that city, according to the federal government’s statistics.
Look back at the last five years. Since 2010, the federal government’s “point in time” count found 51 people sleeping without shelter in Syracuse. Over that same period of time, the same count has found 60 people in Ithaca sleeping without shelter.
These numbers are even harder to understand once you factor in how much bigger Syracuse is than Ithaca.
Per capita, Onondaga County has had a 5-year homeless rate of 1 unsheltered homeless person for every 9,000 residents. In Tompkins, according to the Ithaca Voice’s analysis of the numbers, the rate is one homeless person for every 1,700 residents.
(Update 1/13: One official writes in to say that this year’s statistics counted Oswego and Syracuse together, suggesting there’s really an even bigger gap between Ithaca and Syracuse.)
This leads to a natural question: How, despite all the crime and unemployment and poverty of Syracuse, can Ithaca have more than 5 times as many homeless people per capita?
“As Monica said: We have no people in hotels right now.”
I’m at a meeting on Syracuse’s North Side, not far from one of the poorest and most crime-ridden urban corridors in upstate New York.
There are more than 30 Syracuse government officials, housing providers and homeless advocates here, as well as local law enforcement, lawyers and volunteers.
The mood is upbeat.
“I think we’re putting a huge dent in homelessness in this community,” says Dan Sieburg, chief programs officer of the Syracuse-based Rescue Mission. “And I think we’re going to end it.”
Melissa Marrone, coordinator of the Housing and Homeless Coalition of Syracuse and Onondaga County, agrees.
Marrone has the numbers to back up the optimism. She notes that the number of people generally classified as homeless in Syracuse fell dramatically from 500 in 2014 to 395 in 2015, or by about 20 percent. There were also significant drops in the number of individuals in Syracuse’s homeless shelters, in the number of unaccompanied youth in shelters and along several other metrics.
“It’s astonishing progress,” Marrone says. “It’s huge.”
Most of the Ithaca officials I spoke to said the homeless population appears to have stabilized locally.
None expressed optimism that the end to local homelessness was imminent.
Syracuse felt a world apart. There, providers have launched a bevy of programs — including expedited processing for government help, a better 211 service, and a new extreme weather protocol — to reduce the city’s homeless population.
“The county of Onondaga has said: ‘We don’t want anyone dying in the snow banks,” Sieburg says. “Our community has said, ‘Let’s do whatever we can to get these people off the streets.’ And it’s working.”
Ask the homeless providers in Ithaca how there can be so many homeless people here, and you’ll get a variety of answers.
Here are, as I see it, the theories most frequently blamed with Ithaca’s homeless crisis:
Suspect #1: Spillover effect from Ithaca’s extreme housing market
This is the most common explanation, and also the most plausible: Ithaca’s well-documented housing crisis has made it exceedingly difficult to find housing — both for private individuals and for the government agencies that seek to help them.
The Ithaca Voice has done extensive reporting to document the severity of the city’s housing crisis — rents have skyrocketed, Ithaca routinely makes lists for being among the priciest cities in the country, the vacancy rate is a vanishingly small 0.5 percent.
(The link between housing and homelessness will be explored more fully in Part IV of our series.)
Suspect #2: Ithaca is destination for homeless people
This is the theory I heard most often identified in talking with friends and readers about this story.
The idea generally goes that Ithaca may draw a disproportionate number of homeless because of its hippy aura and reputation for permissive liberality.
Most people on the front-lines of the homeless fight, however, say this is almost certainly a myth.
“Generally, what we hear is that we’re not a destination in any significant way,” says Nels Bohn, Schlather’s co-chair on the “Continuum of Care” responsible for fighting Tompkins’ homelessness
“We have people traveling through in the summer, but they don’t necessarily enter the system.”
Similarly, Bohn’s co-chair Kathy Schlather says Ithaca’s homeless problem can’t be attributed to the “lifestyle” choice of those wishing to be homeless.
“The public has an idea of, ‘If people would just get their act together … or, ‘They just don’t want to work’ or, ‘This is a lifestyle people choose’ … but I would say that they are probably myths,” Schlather says.
Suspect #3: Difference in methodology explains homeless numbers
Another possibility suggested by some local providers is that it’s a difference in methodology — rather than an actual difference in the extent of the problem — that is showing up in the per capita homeless numbers.
“It depends on how you’re defining it,” says Deana Bodnar, program development specialist at the Tompkins County Department of Social Services. “I don’t know how Syracuse defines that.”
Other providers note that despite Ithaca’s recent uptick in homelessness, the numbers have fluctuated throughout the decades.
“We have had these kinds of ups and downs … in the late 70s, we had a real spike in homelessness,” says Lee Dillon, of the local non-profit Tompkins Community Action.
“I think, if we look historically, it goes up and down.”
Suspect #4: Failure of local government to address problem
But what if these external factors aren’t all that’s to blame?
What if the Ithaca and Tompkins governments aren’t doing all they can to get people out of the Jungle and into homes?
“We need to do everything we can, but I have not seen all the resources thrown at that,” says Sieburg, of the Rescue Mission.
Given the number of factors, agencies and people involved, it’s hard to compare local governments’ commitments to fighting homelessness.
But Sieburg produced two telling anecdotes.
After the Rescue Mission took over the West State Shelter from the Red Cross in March 2014, the Tompkins County government cut funding for the shelter by over $70,000, he said.
Another anecdote: Syracuse’s government has funded one full-time outreach worker to ensure that city’s homeless population can access the right resources. No such person exists in Ithaca.
“We have limited resources in Ithaca to keep the shelter up and running,” Sieburg says, “let alone the money to send a staff person to get someone on the street.”
Syracuse has launched a new program to eliminate homelessness one person at a time.
Twice a month, all of the city’s key players — social services, the local government, the shelter operators — go through a list. The list contains the names of the most severe individual instances of homelessness in the city.
The group focuses on the 10 worst cases. They do whatever it takes to make sure that those 10 individuals find housing, according to Sieburg.
“They may be resistant to shelter so we have to look at their needs: ‘Okay, if the shelter won’t work for them, what can we do?,” Sieburg says. “It’s a really good system to ensure that those who are most vulnerable get the most help.”
More than 30 people have found steady, secure housing through the program, says Marrone, the coordinator of the Housing and Homeless Coalition of Syracuse.
“One individual — finally, after years and meeting him daily — came in. He did not want to come to a shelter, so we got him right from street to housing,” Marrone says. “Seeing someone be housed for the first time — it’s very moving.”
That success, Marrone says, was made possible with the full cooperation of Syracuse’s Department of Social Services.
Would the same outcome have been achieved in Tompkins County?
Part III will be published tomorrow.
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