TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y.—In light of the ongoing affordable housing and homelessness crisis facing Ithaca and Tompkins County, the county’s Health and Human Services Committee met this week to discuss clean-up efforts undertaken by the City of Ithaca at the de facto homeless encampment locally, known as “the Jungle.”

Tompkins County Director of Social Services Kit Kephart addressed the committee during lengthy remarks. She noted that predictably, since the pandemic, there has been a lack of beds and care for mental health issues and substance use beds, which has impacted the St. John’s Community Shelter’s ability to handle people’s needs from its rather small location on West State Stret in Ithaca.

Kephart said that some of the increased SNAP benefits that occurred because of COVID are going to be ending in February, meaning that in March, SNAP will be back to what it provided prior to March 2020.

“I think it is going to have a significant impact in some households,” Kephart said. “There are some people that are going to say ‘Hey what’s going on, why did I get this huge reduction?’”

Speaking to the county-wide nature of issues surrounding poverty, legislator Randy Brown said that the Enfield Food Pantry is feeding up to 600 families per week, noting that the pantry has a good volume of healthy food.

Brown also asked if the current number of unhoused individuals is 240 in the county, and Kephart confirmed that those numbers are correct and have jumped up dramatically.

“This is consistent with the rest of the state, we’re seeing these numbers rise very quickly,” Kephart said. “What we’re really seeing is a loss of services throughout the pandemic, a rise of rental rates and all these forces come together that results in people needing shelter. We at social services are trying to shift to a housing-first approach. […] It’s a struggle, and the numbers of people in need of shelter right now is very high.”

During the aforementioned discussion on the city’s clean-up effort, Tompkins County Legislator Dan Klein said 47 tons of waste were brought to the solid waste center, with a charge of $4,533, which the city is asking for reimbursement for from the county.

Lisa Nicholas, the director of planning and development for the City of Ithaca, Ithaca’s Chief of Staff Deb Mohlenhoff and Mike Thorne from the Department of Public Works participated in the discussion regarding the reimbursement request as well as additional plans to continue clean-up.

Thorne said that a few weeks ago the peninsula and bridge areas of the West End were cleaned up. A lot of the trash was scrap metal, needles and propane tanks. “From that clean-up operation, I believe there were about 12 truckloads total,” Thorne said. “The average load was about five tons.”

Thorne said that Cherry Street was also part of the clean-up effort a few weeks ago, and the next area planned to clean up is the Southwest Park, which Thorne estimates would be 75 truckloads or more.

Klein said that $66.80 per ton to truck the garbage to the landfill. Klein noted that that cost per truckload doesn’t include personnel costs.

“If we do agree to reimburse the city for this money, it’s real money,” Klein said.

Mohlenhoff said that the city is close to having a policy written that addresses future plans for keeping unsanctioned encampment areas cleaner in the long term, rather than having to continually facilitate large clean-ups of the areas.

Nels Bohn, executive director of the Ithaca Urban Renewal Agency said there are currently no concrete plans for a city-wide cleanup.

Legislator Amanda Champion proposed that the county reimburse the city for half of its clean-up costs from the effort in the past few weeks and that additional assistance in the future would have to be revisited at that time.

Legislator Brown thanked the city and DPW workers for their efforts and expressed his support for reimbursing for the whole amount requested by the city.

Councilmember George McGonigal said that he’s been part of the unsanctioned encampment clean-up for more than a year, and said that the city would need help cleaning up areas like the Jungle that need a lot of attention. “I hope that we can continue this partnership as we continue to clean up other parts of ‘the Jungle,'” he said.

“In theory, at least, this clean up of the Southwest Park, it’s going to make it easier for the county to provide services,” McGonigal said. “I really want us to establish a partnership to deal with this problem.”

“As much as it’s a partnership, it’s city property,” Champion said.

The vote passed unanimously within the committee, and the resolution will go before the full legislature for a final vote to determine whether the city is reimbursed for the full amount of the clean-up effort.

Other news and notes

  • Resolutions were unanimously passed regarding two budget adjustments for the Department of Social Services for the Adult Protective Service and Safe Harbour programs.
  • Kate Shanks-Booth said that in 2023, two new youth commissions will begin in Newfield and Danby.
  • A budget adjustment for Foodnet Meals on Wheels was passed unanimously, as was new 2023 American Rescue Plan funding.
  • County Administrator Lisa Holmes said the security measures, including a screening device, are still in service at the Human Services Building.

Zoë Freer-Hessler

Zoë Freer-Hessler is the digital editor/reporter for the Ithaca Voice. Joining in November 2021, she has covered a wide range of topics related to local news. She can be reached at,...