ITHACA, N.Y.—Advocates from the Human Services Coalition of Tompkins County (HSCTC) and the local Continuum of Care have proposed what is arguably the most ambitious and comprehensive plan to address the local area’s growing issue with homelessness introduced yet.
Home, Together: Tompkins is a 50-page proposal (available at the bottom of this article) that aims to learn from previous efforts, incorporate what has been successful and dispatch with, or reduce reliance on, strategies that HSCTC leadership feels are not suitable methods to address the homelessness crisis locally. That crisis promises to rise to prominence again now that state protections against homeless people sleeping outside during cold weather have ended for the year, as of this past weekend, which always precedes a rise in homeless population locally.
The proposal reads as part comprehensive action plan, part challenge to decision-makers in the community to follow through to facilitate its success, which would likely not only put a dent in the current homelessness problem that exists in the county but also prepare Tompkins County for any future worsening of the problem, as has happened in the last few years since the COVID-19 pandemic began. It lays out projected start times, requisite elements for success like staffing and funding, and a “racial equity metric,” an accountability measure to ensure that the BIPOC population is not left behind during the efforts. It draws some of its elements from the Tompkins County Homelessness and Housing Needs Assessment published in 2022.
There are nine central tenets to the plan, as it has been proposed:
- a commitment to build 100 studio and single-bedroom units of permanent supportive housing
- construction of a low-barrier shelter that uses a trauma-informed approach to safety
- a “housing surge” strategy to streamline processes that help place people into housing and identify subsidies for them, removing barriers and time obstacles
- funds to mitigate any potential losses for business owners and landlords—the Happy Neighborhood Program
- shopping cart exchange (a prevalent problem in “the Jungle,” the largest local homeless encampment in Southwest Park), cash for trash initiative, other incentive programs
- moving assistance packages to mitigate or eliminate costs
- three full-time employees dedicated to helping homeless people navigate housing
- paid oversight positions of the effort for people who have been homeless
- professional development opportunities for people with lived experience with homelessness
The bulk of the projects are proposed to start in the next 12 months, with the housing surge (assisted by guidelines from the federal government on how such surges have been effective elsewhere) leading the way this year. The latest date of proposed completion is late 2025, for the 100 units of permanent supportive housing.
“The Home, Together: Tompkins plan is a series of progressive opportunities to better serve people experiencing homelessness following an analysis of the existing gaps and needs in our system and the work of several committees of the CoC. Many of these projects don’t currently exist in our system due to dwindling service provider capacity and funding to pilot novel solutions to end homelessness,” the plan reads. “The Continuum of Care believes that locating funding opportunities, coordinating these projects, and expanding sector capacity under a shared goal will allow us to see this plan through to completion.”
The report is meant to relay information that is generally accepted or widely known in the homeless advocacy community, combine it with data and the known needs of the community, and compose it into a plan. Much of that work fell to Simone Gatson, housing specialist with HSCTC, who worked for about a year to write the report, compiling years and perhaps decades of information on earlier efforts, both ones that found success and others that proved futile.
“A lot of these are ideas that have been around for a while, but haven’t been explicitly said out loud or put together in this sort of a plan,” said Liddy Bargar, Director of Housing Initiatives for the HSCTC. “It includes key metrics and a way to measure them.”
Parts of the plan are obvious: advocates have called for more housing for eons, particularly housing units that are better-suited for those with any array of service needs. Others are a bit less familiar, like the Happy Neighborhood Program, which proposes expanding a HSCTC position of landlord liaison who helps tenant-landlord relationships and assists landlords with things like Section 8 paperwork to assist landlords continue offering low-income housing. The program itself would be a mitigation fund for landlords who, once approved by a proposed board of people who have previously been homeless, would be eligible for “financial support up to a certain amount in case of damages or theft incurred while serving people with severe service needs.” This is a nod to the concerns of business owners in the West End who have begun voicing their concerns about petty crime in the area, something explicitly acknowledged in the report.
The three “enhanced, centralized housing navigator positions” would include someone dedicated to serving people who are currently experiencing homelessness, another person working with people who have recently been housed after being homeless, and another for people who are experiencing housing instability, though each worker would be capped at 10-12 individuals to work with at a time who require “long-term assistance navigating barriers to housing is needed.”
One question, of course, is where would the money for such grand ideas come from. The report lists a myriad of grants and loans, city and county funding that had been allocated for encampment space management, state funding through the Office of Addiction Services and Supports (OASAS) among other agencies for permanent supportive housing money, federal programs that are aimed at helping municipalities construct low-cost housing, either for rent or ownership. In total, 14 initial funding avenues are listed.
Gatson called the plan an “attempt to build a homeless response system that does work for people with the most severe service needs,” which the county currently lacks. In Gatson’s mind, the proposal strides toward being trauma-informed, lower barrier, facilitating community engagement, the ability to try new and different models that have worked elsewhere, and more. Bargar said one emphasis is to involve people who are or have experienced homelessness in oversight roles to help modernize an antiquated homeless response system.
“We had quantitative data from our homeless management information system, but also did qualitative interviews with people who are experiencing homelessness or people who have lived experiences with homelessness,” Gatson said. “The data is based on the experiences of people who have lived in the encampments, who have stayed in our shelters, who have experienced homelessness in other ways in our community.”
“The Continuum of Care asserts that a refocus on safety and clear behavioral standards as opposed to compliance with funding regulations will be a key component in creating these spaces,” the plan continues. “A trauma-informed culture shift for our existing emergency shelter spaces, especially as they add additional beds, will be essential to ending unsheltered homelessness for youth and others with severe service needs.”
Another core tenet of the plan is a focus on permanent supportive housing versus temporary housing. While that may seem like splitting hairs, since both involve getting a roof over someone’s head who needs it, Gatson and Bargar argue that transitional housing, at least for the community here, frequently results in a return to homelessness rather than a lasting removal from the homelessness cycle. Permanent supportive housing normally has a more robust offering of wrap-around services such as care for addiction issues, resources to find a job, etc., and typically doesn’t have a time limit before one must leave, unlike temporary housing.
The introduction of the plan, formalized late last month and arriving before Ithaca’s Planning and Economic Development Committee this week, comes curiously close to the anticipated introduction of the City of Ithaca’s plan to address homelessness in the city and deal with the growing population in the Jungle. Bargar insists the timing is coincidental, though the plan does explicitly deal with the matter of encampment clearing or banning, which is expected to be included, to a certain extent, in the city’s plan to deal with homelessness.
The HSCTC proposal discourages banning camping, arguing that doing so is more expensive and less effective than finding less punitive solutions. Home, Together, she said, is not an alternative to any other plan presented, but aims to work in tandem with initiatives that are ongoing or may be introduced. It aims to form a framework for homeless advocacy going forward, one in which other efforts can comfortably fit as they evolve.
Bargar explained that Tompkins County’s relative affluence, particularly compared to surrounding counties, can actually make affordable housing more difficult to find for people who actually need it. That is what’s behind the plan’s insistence on “low cost” housing instead of affordable. In the federal government’s eyes, affordable housing is defined as people who make 80 percent of the area median income paying 30 percent of their rent. In Ithaca, 80 percent of the area median income is about $55,000, with 30 percent of that going to rent—after some calculating, that equals out to about $1,366 per month in rent being considered “affordable housing.”
Bargar and Gatson acknowledge, like the plan itself, that buy-in (part financially, part legislatively, etc.) is necessary from the involved parties in order to make the plans sustainable long-term.
“While some components of this plan are feasible without community buy-in, the goal is to have a coordinated homeless response across Tompkins County,” the plan states. “This step is necessary to shift our continuum of care culture to one that is person-centered and housing-first.”
That last sentiment is certainly a primary theme in the document, further emphasized by the group’s commitment to secure unanimous approval from a yet-filled board of people with lived experience with homelessness for any memorandums of understanding with organizations that will participate in the Home, Together: Tompkins plan.
That focus was fueled by homeless community advocates gradually coming to understand the difficulty in making temporary housing effective, though that is a far more prevalent element of low-cost, low-barrier housing locally.
“Our plan really focuses on increasing that stock of the housing solution that does work for our community, that lowers returns to homelessness as opposed to a more transitional housing approach that the data shows just doesn’t work for our community,” Gatson said.
Bargar said that their research shows that the factors which lead to housing instability and homelessness in Tompkins County are intensifying. Mental health issues, substance abuse issues, financial holes, have always existed, but their negative impacts are now becoming more acute and apparent, while the federal relief money that was flowing freely during the heights of the COVID-19 pandemic is now starting to be pulled back. That leaves populations either experiencing homelessness or who have been living on the edge, hanging by a shrinking federal aid-sized thread, in an even more precarious position. While the problems that the COVID-19 pandemic laid bare still exist, the money allocated to address those issues is disappearing.
“We have seen that people’s needs are getting greater,” Bargar said. “That tells us something about our community, and it’s how we know that our existing system isn’t meeting the needs of folks, and in fact their needs are getting higher. […] People’s needs are growing, but the resources are actually shrinking. They’re not all going to enter the homeless response system, but some of them will, and we’re out of last-minute ways to save them.”