ITHACA, N.Y.—Around 50 people appeared before the Common Council’s Planning and Economic Development Committee (PEDC) on Wednesday to speak out over concerns that the City of Ithaca is planning to use police officers to “sweep” homeless individuals out of designated areas in the city’s West End.

But the demonstrators would receive the response that the city isn’t planning to do that at all.

Alderperson Cynthia Brock addressed the crowded room on Wednesday saying, “The idea of police sweeps through encampment zones — I don’t want to be associated with a community that does that. I don’t think anyone at this table is considering anything like that. I don’t know where that notion comes from, and I don’t know how it’s been perpetuated —” then someone from the crowd interrupted Brock, yelling out, “It’s your policy!”

The people that appeared before the PEDC Committee attributed their concerns to a draft policy to address growing homeless encampents in Ithaca. The draft proposal, which a city working group started developing in September 2022, has marked some areas of the west end — where unhoused individuals have lived for years in an ebb and flow of makeshift shelters and tents —  as prohibited for camping, and allowed some areas for camping. 

The initiative comes as the city and Tompkins County face “crisis levels of individuals experiencing homelessness,” the draft policy proposal reads, bringing into question health and safety concerns for the people living outside, and the businesses and neighbors that surround them.

The homeless encampment on city land located behind the mobile home park Nate’s Floral Estates and Lowes, known as “the Jungle,” would continue to be a designated area, under the city’s draft proposal. Small encampments around commercial properties on Brindley, Taber, and Cherry Streets and Cecil Malone Drive would not be permitted after a year from the policy coming into effect.

The Ithaca Tenants Union, a local advocacy group that organizes around housing issues in the city, urged attendance at Wednesday’s PEDC meeting. In a post to Instagram, the Ithaca Tenants Union asked people to show up to speak out against a city plan to “enact sweeps of homeless camps to ‘deal’ with growing homelessness.”

Brock, particularly, is called out in the post. Referring to the alleged plan for the city to enact sweeps of homeless encampments, the Ithaca Tenants Union post reads, “For the city to do this right after the murder of Jordan Neely is disgusting. Cynthia Brock and those backing the ban seek to be lauded by the business community for disappearing visible homelessness at the expense of our most marginalized.”

Responding to the contents of the post, Brock told The Ithaca Voice that “It feels very disingenuous.” She noted that she is one of member of the working group that is currently working on the city policy, which includes Alderperson Jorge DeFendini, George McGonigal, as well as members of city staff. “The fact that it is attributed to me specifically gives me the indication that this messaging has to do with the upcoming primary and not the policy itself,” said Brock. 

Katie Sims, a one-time candidate for Ithaca Mayor in 2022 and organizer with the Ithaca Tenants Union, said in an interview that the tenants union does have “a lot of distrust” of Brock.

In Sims’ view, an initiative to avoid criminalizing homelessness cannot be compatible with restricting the area where camping is allowed. “She’s been saying for months that she doesn’t want to criminalize homelessness,” Sims said of Brock, “And then in the same sentence, or same meeting or whatnot, also proposing camping bans.” 

Asked what she thought of Brock’s statement against police sweeps of homeless encampments on Wednesday, Sims said, “I want to be optimistic.”

The city’s homelessness policy is still in the drafting phase, but a draft map of the prohibited and allowed camping areas in the city was shared during April’s PEDC meeting. The city’s working group that has been developing the policy has framed it not as an effort to address people who are experiencing homelessness, but as a land use policy guided by the goal of not criminalizing homelessness. 

A draft pilot procedure for enforcing rules around unsanctioned and sanctioned camping zones describe campers that are in “red zones are most likely to encounter law enforcement requesting campsite relocation on a recurring basis.” The draft policy, reviewed during April’s PEDC meeting, cites among its guiding purposes to treat people “experiencing homelessness with respect, dignity and compassion, and that “homelessness is not a crime.” The policy states that any “necessary relocation intervention” will be “accompanied by an option for shelter, housing, and/or a relocation site.”

Currently, camping in the city is illegal, but the city has chosen not to enforce those laws. Barring the presence of criminal activity, the city will be relying on voluntary relocation to clear encampments from prohibited zones, according to the draft policy. 

For some of Wednesday’s speakers who cited text in the policy, they found the language unconvincing. Several speakers would accuse Ithaca’s elected officials of hiding behind a “veneer of progressivism” while pushing forward what they insisted was an inhumane policy. 

Gabriel Ewig, a student at Cornell, told the PEDC expressed that any police enforcement in zones that prohibit would be a contradiction of the values professed in the draft pilot procedure. 

“What this is, is dog whistle politics, right? You’re trying to have it both ways, and it’s hypocrisy,” said Ewig.

Around 50 people appeared before Common Council’s Planning and Economic Development Committee on Wednesday to speak out over concerns that the city was planning to sweep people out of the homeless encampments on Ithaca’s West End. They were told there concerns were misplaced. Credit: Jimmy Jordan / The Ithaca Voice

Many speakers would advocate for the city to focus their energy and resources on expanding housing. An ambitious plan recently released by the Human Services Coalition of Tompkins County and the local Continuum of Care charts an action plan for addressing homelessness in Tompkins County and the city, while also serving as a challenge to local officials to follow through on it. Among the central tenants of the plan, it offers an assessment of how much supportive housing would need to be built in order to address the current homelessness crisis: 100 units. 

Natalya Cowilich, an Outreach Coordinator with Family & Children’s Service of Ithaca, told the Committee on Wednesday that, “I’m here to offer my experience working with this population and hoping that you’ll reconsider the fences, reconsider building a wall, reconsider sweeping people out of the the eyes of our community because, really, that will really just exacerbate the problem.”

Cowilich, who said she visits the city’s homeless encampments every week, said that many of the people she works with express a strong interest in housing. “The solution to homelessness truly, really is housing,” she said. 

Building housing, however, is out of the city’s scope , Brock would tell the crowded Council Chambers. “The city council has purview over land use policies. We address land use policies, we don’t build housing.” While the city can direct funding to support organizations that build housing, the city is not in the business of building housing. 

Brock framed the policy that’s being developed as one focused on land use but also meant to help the city “work with our partners to deliver services to where the homeless are, and to help support them […] and the intention is to create places where they can be because we know there’s not enough housing.”

The framing of the policy as one concerned with land use, rather than homelessness, is semantic in the eyes of some who spoke out at last night’s meeting. Sims, of Ithaca Tenants Union, said “It was said last night that this was a land use policy and that the city regulates land use, and that it’s not a homeless response policy. But it is because the reason why this whole process started was to address the encampments.”

While the maps shared at last month’s PEDC meeting display an area that camping would be prohibited, exactly how that is going to be enforced is a matter that is undetermined said Alderperson Jorge DeFendini, who is one of three members of Common Council in the working group along with Brock and Alderperson George McGonigal, 

Addressing Wednesday’s crowd, Alderperson DeFendini said of the camping ban: “How does that get enforced? I think it’s a valid, valid question. And I share your concerns. And I personally don’t believe law enforcement should be involved in that process. But that’s something that’s being untangled in our working group.”

“I really do believe that we need to stay committed to something that’s been said multiple times by everyone involved in this process, which is that we don’t want to criminalize homelessness,” said DeFendini.

Jimmy Jordan

Jimmy Jordan is Senior Reporter for The Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact him at Connect with him on Twitter @jmmy_jrdn