ITHACA, N.Y.—As the weather warms, the City of Ithaca is preparing for the annual surge in the unhoused population that comes when the temperature makes the outdoors more livable and the state’s Code Blue policy ends, removing a requirement to find shelter for those sleeping outdoors when the temperature is below freezing.
While the issue has increased in severity and size in the last few years, the city has never truly defined what its policy is regarding policing homelessness and how intensely the city wants to scrutinize outdoor camping on its property. That has led to a somewhat uncomfortable détente, in which the city has adopted a hands-off approach to the homeless population, as long as it stays mostly invisible, as it does in Southwest Park in “the Jungle.”
But as that population grew, the encampments crept outside of the Jungle and rankled business owners and nearby neighbors in Nate’s Floral Estates, both of whom say they have been victims of crimes perpetrated by people from the encampments (though, as any homeless advocate will tell you, frequently suspects of crimes will flee into the Jungle to avoid detection, but they do not actually live in the Jungle).
In response to that increased visibility and complaints, the city formed a working group last year and presented a proposed pilot plan last month to address part of the issue, namely about which city land would be prioritized for outdoor camping enforcement and which ones wouldn’t. There was no action taken on the plan, as the meeting served as mainly a check-in on progress, but it was the most revealing glimpse at the city’s intentions with future unhoused policy as the focus continues.
“We worked under the legal and ethical idea of not criminalizing homelessness,” Planning Director Lisa Nicholas said, though she was sure to make clear what the city intends to impact with the draft policy—and what it doesn’t. “The policy is about how to manage city property, and not addressing people who are experiencing homelessness.”
The most significant portion of the plan is delineating which parts of the city would be assigned which priority level for camping enforcement: red, yellow and green. The colors mean what you probably suspect, but just in case: The green zones would be where outdoor camping would be temporarily allowed and legal, at least until the end of the Code Blue policy in mid-April 2024. Amber zones would be a “gray area” (perhaps an amber area), where camping wouldn’t be legal but the city wouldn’t prioritize enforcement there. Camping on city land that is in a red zone would be prohibited. The proposed pilot program would also include the hiring of a Homeless Outreach Coordinator as a full-time employee.
One example of a green zone would be where the Jungle currently is, while a red zone would be the Brindley Street area park, other parks or roadways, likely the Commons, though the areas have not been finalized. The Jungle is mentioned specifically as the primary trial spot for year one for a low-priority enforcement area, saying that at the end of the pilot year the boundaries of the low-priority area including the Jungle will be “evaluated for expansion, reduction or discontinuance.” There will also be “basic sanitary facilities” installed and maintained by the city in low-priority areas, particularly the Jungle.
“The idea here is that the city is not going to use a lot of its resources or enforcement in this area just because someone’s camping there, it’s if they trigger a behavior issue or problem, that could be bonfires […] debris spread out all over, hygiene issues,” IURA Executive Director Nels Bohn said of the low-priority areas, including the amber areas that make up a significant swath of the city. “Otherwise, if someone is quietly camping in those areas, we’re recommending it’s not a priority for the city to move forward with enforcement efforts.”
It’s clear the city is prioritizing the Brindley Street park, where encampments popped up last summer but which has since been the target of clean-up efforts by the city and is included in the “active management areas” explicitly in the city’s plan. Part of the proposal, under the name of preventing the reestablishment of campsites, includes “plan, design and identify funding for programming to be installed no later than years 2-3,” suggesting picnic areas or a playground among others at the Brindley Street area. The rest of the active management areas are left open-ended for now, though the city acknowledges that it doesn’t actually have the staff to feasibly monitor all spaces.
Nobody particularly wants to use the term “clearing” of encampments, but it seems that is what the city intends to do—in a sense—if a campsite is in one of the newly restricted areas after one year.
“During Year One, camping on public land will not be considered a prohibited activity,” the proposal states. “However, camping will be prohibited in Active Management Areas and relocation, or intervention may be needed in the case of an emergency or hazard. Relocation activities will vary depending on circumstance.” That process will include “working with residents to achieve voluntary relocation to either temporary or permanent housing or to a low priority enforcement area.” Cleaning and clearing of abandoned campsites on a larger scale will take place seasonally, though the campsites will have to
But, as was frequently stated, this is an early version of the plan and definitive details on those aspects will likely come as the plan moves through the city deliberation process. It is not on May’s Common Council agenda, and the document says that during Code Blue next year, city staffers will “evaluate the impacts and effectiveness of this pilot policy and recommend continuance or modification.”
The plan is a far cry from the city’s The Ithaca Designated Encampment Site (TIDES) plan introduced a year ago, which would have constructed several small cottage-like structures in “the Jungle” surrounding a central structure that would have included a kitchen and hygiene facilities.
TIDES was cautiously lauded when it was brought forward as an ambitious step and welcome movement on the homeless issue, even if some had problems or doubts with the details, but its slow progress signaled to some that it was either stalled or doomed. The dismay in the homeless advocate community over TIDES’ prospects for approval was most clearly evidenced by a proposal from Second Wind Cottages, which closely paralleled the TIDES plan and actually secured funding from the Tompkins County Recovery Fund for the project. Subsequently, though, Second Wind withdrew its plan after objections from residents and elected officials in Newfield, where the project would have been constructed behind Second Wind’s current location.
Bohn spoke to some of the confusion that has ruled the city’s homelessness policy, such as there is one.
“Right now, the city does not allow camping anywhere in the city,” Bohn said. “The only place it’s in the code specifically is in the natural areas, it’s expressly prohibited. Otherwise, it’s subject to zoning, we don’t allow camping anywhere in the city in the zoning code. That’s the framework.”
But, he continued, that’s not how the situation plays out in reality.
“In practice, nobody knows what the city’s policy is, because everybody is making it up on a case-by-case basis, and city staff doesn’t know how to respond to the issues because there’s no clear guidance on how to approach these issues,” Bohn said.
Mayor Laura Lewis acknowledged that the homeless issue is growing locally, and noted that the traditional seasonality of the problem, which usually grows in spring and summer since the weather makes it more habitable outside, makes this an optimal time to act.
Alderpersons Phoebe Brown and George McGonigal discussed the Brindley Street area’s prioritization, with McGonigal pushing back on Brown’s thoughts that the area was being elevated because of the incoming Chamber of Commerce building nearby.
In response to a question from Chair Rob Gearhart about what the staffers would need to feel comfortable proceeding, Bohn said he wouldn’t want to bring forward a policy for which there was no appetite to enact. Alderperson Cynthia Brock expressed some discomfort about the murkiness of the amber areas and that law enforcement would be the first group involved in potential interactions with unhoused populations. Bohn said it was not his intention to say that law enforcement would be the first call, but he did note that if someone is camping in a red zone, they are most likely to interact with law enforcement since that would be explicitly illegal.
“We’re always going to try voluntary efforts first,” Bohn said, mentioning that city staff and outreach coordinators would be the initial call.