ITHACA, N.Y.—The mood at the Fraternal Order of the Eagles Ithaca club on July 27 was a mix of long simmering frustration and relief.
Alderpersons George McGonigal and Cynthia Brock hosted a West End community meeting where they presented and gathered feedback on the city’s draft policy for managing the homeless encampments spread across the City of Ithaca’s West End inlet area.
The frustration stems from long standing complaints of West End area residents and businesses that the city has not addressed the issues surrounding the encampments, which has a highly variable and transient population according to outreach workers. The sense of relief comes from what appears to be an effort to change the status quo — one of inaction in the recent past, Brock said.
“For those of us who have been part of this conversation for many years, where we started was basically almost a decade of a policy of tacit acceptance,” Brock told the crowd of about 40 at the Eagles Club.
The draft plan, which would create areas where camping is explicitly allowed on city property and areas where it is not, is the product of a city working group that has been trying to craft a policy that avoids criminalizing homelessness while also managing the presence of encampments in the city, according to the document.
“We need to remember that not everybody living outdoors is a criminal. And in fact, many of them are being victimized in the same way you are,” McGonigal told last week’s crowd.
Nate’s Floral Estates abuts an area, informally known as the Jungle, where homeless encampments have existed for decades. The Jungle is slated to be made the city’s only “green zone,” or an area where camping will be allowed, according to the draft camping management policy.
But that is proving to be a tough proposal for residents of the mobile home park community to swallow.
“Why is there an assumption that Nate’s Floral Estates, as a residential area, should be burdened with this?” Esther Herkowitz said, a resident of Nate’s.
Nate’s residents made up nearly half of the attendees at the July 27 meeting. They shared complaints at the meeting of having been robbed by individuals they believed were living in the Jungle, as well as waking up to find individuals sleeping on the porches of their mobile homes.
As a counter proposal, Herkowitz suggested that the city-owned land where the Newman Municipal Golf Course is should be turned into a site where encampments are allowed.
“When I say the golf course, I mean the golf course,” Herkowtiz said, arguing that the site would give outreach workers easy access to people living in encampments there.
The draft plan’s green zone near Nate’s, which also includes the Cayuga Inlet and extends behind the big-box stores along State Route 13 — like Lowe’s, Walmart, and Wegmans — was chosen because of the access road that already runs into it, McGonigal said. He mentioned that the area will also allow the emergency responders to access the area when there are emergencies.
Tammy Baker, Tompkins County’s Homeless Service Coordinator, said of the policy that, “I think we’re just trying to move the needle forward. This is not going to solve everything at all. But if we can invite people to be in one area, the outreach workers can go there.”
The draft policy outlines a six step process for redirecting people living in encampments in areas where it is forbidden, marked as “red zones,” to green zones. The draft policy includes a third tentative zone, known as an “amber zone,” in which camping would be prohibited, but where enforcement would be a lower priority.
The draft policy is currently proposing that police become involved at the fourth notice of an individual to move their encampment. At that point, an officer would verbally notify an individual to move their campsite. A police officer will issue a citation if someone does not comply after a verbal, and then a written warning.
Tompkins County Legislator Rich John, who attended the community meeting, argued that six chances is too many before an enforcement action is taken. He said there “has to be a place you can go if you don’t have available shelter,” but that the amber zones are not going to “work at all.”
He said, “You’re going to try and commit to six and then you have somebody who’s just moved from one amber zone to another amber zone and you haven’t accomplished anything at all.”
One of the most hotly contested debates surrounding the city’s draft policy is whether police should be involved in enforcing it.
“The philosophy that is under debate is should law enforcement be included in this protocol at all,” Brock said.
That debate is part and parcel of a desire to address alleged criminal activity that has taken place in the Jungle and surrounding homeless encampments. That topic underpinned much of the community conversation.
Ithaca Police Department’s Acting Chief, Ted Schwartz, said at the community meeting that, while there has been petty crime and more serious crimes associated with the Jungle for years, the police department believes, “people that don’t live in the jungle are coming down here and committing a lot of serious crime.”
It’s a concern that has begun to color the disappearance of Thomas Rath, a 33-year-old man who was abducted from the Jungle in May, and who police now believe was potentially killed.
Deb Wilkie, the Homeless Crisis Alleviation Coordinator for Second Wind Cottages, a supportive housing organization, told The Ithaca Voice that outreach workers have stopped conducting walkthroughs of the encampments out of safety concerns.
“Instead of going through and meeting at places out there we’re really not doing that,” Wilkie said. “It just started a couple of weeks ago — to meeting in one spot near the perimeter of the green zone behind Wal-Mart.”
The concern for her safety is one that Wilkie said is also felt by many living in the Jungle. However the city determines to go forward with establishing an area where camping is permitted, Wilkie said, “Somehow in that green zone, it has to be safe for everyone, if you are afraid of living in your home at Nate’s there are people living in tents or without even a tent — they are also afraid.”