ITHACA N.Y.—Common Council members in the Working Group on Unsanctioned Encampments (WGUE) released a draft framework for a new camping policy in the city July 17.
The draft of the Administrative Pilot Policy on Unsanctioned Encampments on City Property has been in the works since the group was formed in 2022 by Mayor Laura Lewis to develop a concrete plan to address homelessness in the city.
The draft was presented to the Planning and Economic Development Committee of the Common Council at the meeting on June 21.
The committee is requesting feedback and input from residents to Planning and Development Director Lisa Nicholas on specific portions of the draft, specifically the areas addressing police involvement, enforcement tactics permitted by the city and use of the word “enforcement,” though all feedback is being solicited until Aug. 7, 2023. The full proposal can be read at the bottom of this article.
The plan is significantly different from what was originally proposed in April 2022, when The Ithaca Designated Encampment Site (TIDES) was presented as the city’s most comprehensive answer to the homelessness issue. Specifically, in relation to the population of “the Jungle,” the well-known homeless encampment in the city.
There are elements of TIDES that are incorporated into the current proposal, like providing sanitation services and formalizing the city’s vague homeless encampment policy. However, the proposed small cottages and central community space, outfitted with a kitchen and showers, have been nixed in the current proposal.
The draft categorizes city properties into three zones, green, amber and red, to distinguish where camping on public land is permitted and to what degree.
In the green zone, unhoused individuals are temporarily allowed to camp on the 66-acre city-owned parcel behind Walmart and Lowes, an area that was formerly known as Southwest Park and where the Jungle is currently. This excludes areas on the parcel being activity used by the Department of Public Works (DPW) for various purposes.
The city will provide “basic hygiene and sanitation services on a trial basis” at a non-disclosed green zone area, according to the draft.
In the amber zone, which includes “all city property not classified in either the green or red zones,” camping is prohibited, but a “lower priority” for enforcement.
Here, enforcement is triggered by “specific negative impacts” of particular campsites rather than the “mere presence” of a campsite generally.
Portions of city-owned property where camping is strictly prohibited is referred to in the draft as the red zone. The city will prioritize land management and enforcement resources to keep lands in these zones “free from encampments,” as written in the draft.
The red zone includes the 4.3 acre, city-owned 119 Brindley Street parcel, which is the area between Cecil A. Malone Drive and Taber Street. Camping is prohibited in any areas “under active city use” for public or municipal functions like parks, sidewalks, and public parking, among other functions.
In the green zone, law enforcement will be instructed to take a “non-involvement approach,” according to the draft, “unless an emergency response” is warranted. The working group does not provide specifics about what it or law enforcement considers an emergency response, but it does outline that law enforcement will respond to normal calls as they would in other situations that do not involve location or whether someone is homeless or not.
The amber zone is classified as the area of the city where camping is not allowed, but enforcement is more purposeful. For example, the draft said that before “other enforcement measures” are deployed, “voluntary efforts to relocate and/or mitigate” are encouraged. The existence of amber zones is one of the questions the city is specifically gathering feedback on.
Below, readers can compare the full city map with the proposed camping areas using the arrow in the middle.
Residents and local officials have been discussing how to address issues seen in “The Jungle,” such as drug manufacturing and abuse, theft and occasional violence, over the last 2-3 years. The need to take steps to solve these problems came to a head in 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic substantially increased the homeless population in the city.
After the pandemic, the Jungle’s informal boundaries began to shift from the area formerly known as Southwest Park, behind Walmart and Lowes, into the West End of town in Brindley Street Park.
The construction of a dewatering facility in the former Southwest Park started in 2020 and displaced several residents of the Jungle, partially leading to this migration.
The situation in the Jungle has recently come under more intense scrutiny again with the recent disappearance of Thomas Rath, a 33-year-old man who police now believe was abducted from the Jungle in May and potentially killed.
However, police have only stated that they are conducting a homicide investigation in connection with Rath’s disappearance. Rath’s disappearance heightened the concerns that already existed around the community regarding the safety of the Jungle and its inhabitants.
Members of the working group included in the draft a list of factors that would trigger city intervention or acts of enforcement:
- Quantities of garbage, debris, salvage materials or waste
- Presence of vermin or biological vector hazards and evidence of infestation
- Bonfire or uncontrolled fires
- Hard wall structures
- Verified reports or observable evidence of violence or criminal activity other than camping
- Complaints from neighbors
- Restriction of authorized construction or maintenance activities
- Damage to the natural environment, including cutting down trees.
“Encampments in the amber zone that remain civil, safe and sanitary will not be prioritized for enforcement,” according to the draft. If campers follow these rules, they should not be bothered by police or other enforcement officers.
The city will prioritize keeping the red zone areas free of encampments by various means like erecting fencing, clearing vegetation and mowing to “convert inclusive public spaces for use by all persons,” according to the draft, including those experiencing homelessness.
The draft states that the city reserves the right to “seek immediate closure and/or removal” of any campsite on city property “in the event of an emergency or hazard condition,” regardless of the zone it exists in.
Specifics regarding enforcement tactics have been debated by residents, activists and Common Council members since 2020 when encampment discussions began.
The draft outlines enforcement protocol and states that the city prefers outreach workers to communicate with individuals at unauthorized encampments, rather than police officers or city staff, and “successfully convince” the camper to “voluntarily relocate.”
If this approach fails, the draft states next steps include “repeatedly seeking voluntary compliance before considering escalated enforcement tactics.” There is no situation in which a physical “sweep” of encampments is authorized by the policy.
A tracking system to log and update unauthorized encampments will be implemented through this policy, with the city creating and establishing a “Shared Encampment Incident” database. It will be maintained by the city’s homeless coordinator, a part-time position that is currently vacant.
The database will be shared with the Continuum of Care, the Enhanced Street Outreach Team (ESOT), the Tompkins County Homeless Services Coordinator, Ithaca Fire Department, Ithaca Police Departments and other appropriate parties.
A member of the ESOT, who, according to the draft, is funded in whole or part by the city or county, will be contacted by the city to request they “act as an agent” for the city by physically visiting encampment sites to do three things. To inform the camper of city policy, determine compliance with this policy and provide the camper with information about how to gain shelter, housing or identify an alternative location where camping is allowed.
If a camp is located within a red zone that is also managed by city staff, such as parks, managed natural areas and public buildings, the draft of the policy allows for city staff to make the initial site visit to request the removal of the campsite.
A “no camping” notice will be “prominently posted,” as written in the draft, at the campsite by city staff, requiring the campsite be moved within a reasonable specified amount of time that will also be posted on the signage. The draft states that time period will never be less than 24 hours.
In all other cases, barring an emergency, the draft proposes a step-by-step process enforcement will be required to follow when asking campers to comply with the new laws:
At the first visit to the campsite in question the individual camping will be provided with a brief summary of the city policy, including locations where camping is allowed. The city agent is to request they “bring the camp into compliance,” as written in the draft.
If the person fails to comply with the first verbal request, the draft states the agent is to return to the site a second time and provide another verbal notice. If the camper is not at the site at the time an enforcement agent visits, a “no camping” sign will be posted.
At the third visit, an enforcement agent is to inform the camper that their failure to comply will lead to “repeated visits to seek compliance,” and may lead to “involvement of police,” according to the draft. If the “no camping” sign posted at the time of the second visit is not visible, it will be reposted.
After the third site visit, the draft marks the next steps in seeking camper compliance be handled by police intervention. First with a verbal notice, then a written one, followed by a citation if the camper does not comply.
The working group is considering removing police involvement entirely from the steps, but if they do so, “additional steps” are needed to achieve compliance, according to a highlighted note in the draft.
The committee is seeking feedback from the community on all aspects of the policy, but particularly, on the level of police involvement outlined in the draft.
Preferably, outreach workers would conduct site visits. In the case they are unable or unwilling, the city’s homeless outreach coordinator, or their designee, with another city or county employee familiar with the site in question, is also authorized to conduct site visits. If the coordinator is unavailable, a member of the Ithaca Police Department (IPD) may be requested to conduct site visits.
A report and proposal called “Home Together, Tompkins” was introduced in the spring and lays out a nine-pronged approach to build housing and fill gaps that exist in local social services.
The plan was created by the Human Services Coalition of Tompkins County, the non-profit organization, in tandem with members of the Tompkins County Continuum of Care in hopes to act as a catalyst for beginning to strategize solutions to address the growing unhouses population. The plan has not been a topic of discussion in a tangible way since it was accepted by the city in May.
The city’s slow progress motivated the introduction of another plan, put forward by Second Wind Cottages in Newfield, which would have used money from the Tompkins County Recovery Fund to build 12-15 small cabins behind Second Wind’s current property, which has 18 existing cottages for men struggling with homelessness, mental health, addiction, or a combination.
While that proposal was initially funded for $510,000, pending environmental review, Second Wind Executive Director David Shapiro withdrew the funding request after tension developed between Second Wind and the Town of Newfield government over the plan.
Comments and feedback can be sent to Lisa Nicholas, the director of planning and development, at firstname.lastname@example.org, no later than Aug. 7. The comments will be discussed at the committee’s Aug. 16 meeting.
The full draft policy can be found here: