ITHACA, N.Y.—Common Council unanimously approved the creation of a sanctioned encampment zone in the City of Ithaca Wednesday as part of a one year pilot policy.
The move has been billed by city officials as the first step to addressing the growth of the homeless encampments on Ithaca’s West End, known as the “Jungle.” But leadership in the city wants the next steps to come with the resources and collaboration of the Tompkins County government as well as social service agencies.
“This is a challenge that the city cannot take on alone,” Ithaca Mayor Laura Lewis said.
The final policy no longer has an enforcement protocol that would require people to move into the sanctioned encampment, and includes a goal to introduce amenities, such as bathrooms and running water, to the sanctioned encampment.
The encampments, which are spread out across several parcels of city owned property abutting residential areas and businesses, have remained a feature of Ithaca throughout the living memory of long-term residents. Up until this point, the attitude from the officials in City Hall towards the encampments in recent years has been described as one of “tacit acceptance.”
But an uptick in the Jungle’s population during and after the COVID-19 pandemic put a new focus on the homeless population living there. Outreach workers have previously shared their estimates that there are around 40 to 60 people living in the Jungle, which has a fluctuating population.
Last winter a record number of 240 people sought emergency cold weather shelter in Tompkins County, up from 150 in the winter of 2021 to 2022.
Concern around the living conditions in the encampments have moved the public conversation, but concern has also increased around criminal activity that has been linked to the Jungle, such as the high profile death of Thomas Rath. He was kidnapped from the Jungle in May, and died in what police have labeled a murder. Police have announced the arrest of 11 people so far in connection with Rath’s death.
The newly sanctioned encampment is located in an area known as Southwest Park, a piece of city owned land bordered by the Cayuga Inlet and big box stores like Walmart, and adjacent to Nate’s Floral Estates, a mobile home community. The entire encampment is about 58 acres in area. City officials estimated that around half of that area is suitable for camping.
Details of the policy approved Wednesday changed drastically after an Aug. 16 meeting of the Common Council’s Planning and Economic Development Committee. It became clear during the meeting that the draft version of the policy lacked the majority support it would need from councilors.
Included in the policy approved Wednesday is a commitment for city officials to develop and implement a plan with community partners to introduce toilets, drinking water, garbage collection, lighting, and even phone charging among other amenities to the sanctioned encampment.
Among the sticking points that were removed from the current plan include an enforcement protocol that would compel people from camping on city property to move into the sanctioned encampment zone.
City officials retain the right to intervene in the encampment under the policy, such as in an emergency situation. Camping on city property was entirely prohibited under local law prior to the approval of the sanctioned encampment policy, but that prohibition has remained largely unenforced in the encampments.
The policy’s unanimous approval did come with some reservations.
Alderperson George McGonigal gave the policy his support, but without the enforcement protocol, he called it “incomplete.”
The city’s ability to ensure the safety of the sanctioned encampment site has been a lingering point of contention.
Alderperson Cynthia Brock has supported implementing a layer of oversight in the sanctioned encampment area which she feels would improve the safety for the most vulnerable residents of the site.
A management plan is not incorporated into the pilot policy. Without one, Brock said she felt that the city is making a “leap of faith.”
“We go as far as to talk about phone charging. I do think it’s important to be explicit about outlining, at the very minimum, that this will be a safe place,” Brock said.
It’s a view that some council members, such as Alderperson Phoebe Brown, reject.
“We continue to label this jungle in this tone of how dangerous and scary and boogeymanish it is when there’s no guarantee any of us could walk out this door and something possibly can happen to us,’’ Brown said.
Councilors agreed to require quarterly reviews of the policy during the year-long pilot period. The pilot outlines metrics that should be measured, like seeing whether residents of the Jungle actually congregate in the sanctioned area without the enforcement protocol.
The pilot also includes the goal of estimating what it will cost to operate the sanctioned encampment and provide services.