ITHACA, N.Y.—A contentious policy aimed at reducing the area encompassed by homeless encampments in the city of Ithaca’s West End has been sent back to the drawing board for revisions. 

The Common Council’s Planning and Economic Development Committee decided at its Wednesday meeting to reshape the policy after it became clear that, as written, it lacks the consensus needed to survive a vote of the five member committee and be sent to the full Common Council. 

The draft that the committee discussed Wednesday was the product of a city working group that began meeting almost a year ago. The policy, if it is eventually adopted by the Common Council, stands to end an era of city officials tacitly accepting the West End’s homeless encampments, known as the Jungle, despite camping on public property being illegal. 

The encampments are spread across pockets of flood-susceptible land owned by the city and on land bordering rail tracks owned by Norfolk Southern Railway. Its population varies with the season. In the winter it typically lowers, but outreach workers have estimated that there are between 40 and 60 people living in the encampments currently. 

The draft policy would explicitly ban camping in certain areas, appearing as “red zones” on a map, and proposed an area where homeless individuals could camp, or a “green zone,” which would be adjacent to the Ithaca location of Lowe’s Home Improvement store and Nate’s Floral Estates, a mobile home community. 

But it became clear throughout Wednesday’s meeting that councilors on the committee were conflicted over what enforcement methods should be used to move individuals living outside from red zones to the green zone, and if there even should be red zones since it is already illegal to camp on city land. The police’s role in enforcing the restricted camping areas has been one of the most intensely discussed aspects of the policy. 

The draft policy outlines a six step “enforcement protocol” that would begin with outreach workers from local nonprofits, or the City’s Homeless Outreach Coordinator, to notify people camping in banned areas that they need to move to an area where it is allowed. 

The draft policy designates outreach workers with the duty to issue the first three notices but, if noncompliance continues after that, local law enforcement would step in. Upon the sixth total notice, if noncompliance persists, an officer would issue a citation under the draft.

The Ithaca Police Department’s Acting Chief, Ted Schwartz, said in his written feedback on the draft camping policy that police enforcement of the policy is “appropriate,” but that the department “doesn’t want to be overly involved or heavy handed.” He said police should be a last resort after “all other forms of notice” are used. 

Schwartz said in his feedback that logging notices given to people camping in the red zone “seems problematic logistically, possibly making enforcement unrealistic.”

Alderperson Jorge DeFendini said Wednesday the protocol would criminalize homelessness in his view, but he also emphasized that the six step enforcement policy would be a “logistical nightmare” to try to enforce.

DeFendini advocated for there only being a green zone, where camping is expressly allowed, which the city could make a hospitable place to camp in order to attract people to move there.

“It seems like we’re gonna get a lot more success with carrots and honey than a stick and vinegar,” DeFendini said. 

Investing in the green zone and making it an attractive area for individuals to camp drew the support of Alderperson George McGonigal. He said that he wanted to see potable water, showers, toilets, and trash removal made available in the green zone, as well as locked storage.

The Jungle, in many areas, is unsanitary, with trash and waste piling up and lacking basic amenities. Improving the conditions of the people living there has broad support on council, as well as improving access to the encampments in heavily wooded areas for emergency vehicles and responders.

McGonigal said the Jungle “can be a safer place,” but where he split from DeFendini was the need for consolidating the encampments — a measure he sees as necessary in order to address the concerns of the businesses and residents in the West End community. 

The draft policy does not have any language in it about introducing drinkable water, lockers, or other services. Alderperson Tiffany Kumar stated that she wants to see a commitment to that in the policy, as well as language that would instruct police, if they are to become involved in enforcement, about how to respond to nonviolent crimes.

The draft proposal also included “amber zones,” where camping would be prohibited but enforcement would not be prioritized. The idea of the amber zones being implemented has given officials pause since early in their discussions, and the committee Wednesday appeared to reach the consensus to cut them from the draft.

Kumar called the amber zones a “gray area” that would rely on citizen complaints for enforcement, which could be “problematic.” 

“We don’t really know what would cause somebody to call the police on somebody who’s camping based on their own perception of the situation without the proper training or understanding that social workers, law enforcement officers might have,” Kumar said.

From left to right: Alderpersons Jorge DeFendini, Tiffany Kumar, and Rob Gearhart listen to a member of the public address the Planning and Economic Development Committee. Credit: Casey Martin / The Ithaca Voice

City staff will be incorporating the committee’s feedback into a new draft policy that, ostensibly, will be discussed and voted on at the Planning and Economic Development Committee’s September meeting.

The committee’s reevaluations came after reviewing a flood of written feedback on the draft policy collected over the last month, and over an hour of public comment at the start of their meeting Wednesday. 

Over 30 members of the public attended the committee meeting. Among them, residents of Nate’s Floral Estates — many of whom are elderly — who have been among the most vocal proponents for the city to address the issue of homelessness in the city.

Esther Herkowitz, a resident of Nate’s who has frequently spoken at public meetings about the Jungle, said she was in favor of limiting the size of the encampments out of fear of people who are not necessarily homeless, but involved in criminal activity that associate with the Jungle. 

Herkowtiz, who said she was homeless for 11 months at one point, described seeing “women screaming and being dragged down the railroad tracks into the encampments.”

“I am very in favor of land use policy that limits camping, to certain areas that can be monitored, where emergency vehicles can get in, where people can be feeling — I hope — more safe than what I’m seeing happening,” Herkowtiz said.

Outreach workers, activists from the Ithaca Tenants Union, a left-wing tenants advocacy group, and two residents of the encampments appeared before the committee and spoke against the city’s proposal to enforce a camping ban in areas other than a green zone.

Katie Sims, a political organizer and member of the Ithaca Tenants Union, delivered a petition with what they claimed were 549 signatures of people opposed to the draft policy.

Weddy Tanner, a resident of the Jungle, attended the committee meeting with Richard Rivera, an outreach worker with Opportunities, Alternatives, and Resources (OAR) of Tompkins County, a nonprofit focused on serving currently and formerly incarcerated individuals and other marginalized groups.

Tanner said she has suffered “mental illness” and has struggled to obtain shelter through social services. She called the Jungle her “safe haven.”

“I don’t agree with this policy. It does criminalize us. We are human,” Tanner said.

Rivera said he was opposed to the policy on “philosophical grounds.” He said he is worried that utilizing police to move homeless individuals from a red zone to a green zone would put those people at risk. 

“Whenever you bring police into these systems, problems do happen,” Rivera said.

Alderperson Rob Gearhart, who chairs the Planning and Economic Development committee, said he is “anxious” to move the city’s policy forward before the city’s budget season is underway in October.

He said in an interview that establishing a green zone is the first step for the city to begin facilitating the delivery services and amenities to the homeless population on Ithaca’s West End. 

“We certainly feel the urgency to move something forward because this has been going on for a long time,” Gearhart said.

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