TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y.—Tompkins County is wading into the fight over how to address issues in the large homeless encampment in Ithaca’s West End known as “the Jungle.”

For months, a City of Ithaca-led working group has deliberated over how to restrict the area where encampments would be permitted.

But aspects of the city’s most recent plan have proven divisive, such as an enforcement protocol that would involve police potentially issuing citations to homeless campers.

County officials are in the process of convening a working group of their own, called the “Land Use & Homelessness Working Group,” as city staff work to revise the proposal. The county working group will include both county and city officials, but is separate from the city’s previous working group on the matter.

Tompkins County Homeless Services Coordinator Tammy Baker said the group is intended to improve collaboration between city and county officials. While the city has jurisdiction over the way the land is used, the county is responsible for coordinating any new services for the people who live there.

“The city’s working on the land use policy—or draft policy—and [the county is] talking about what services [we] can offer,” Baker said. “So instead of working in silos, let’s work together.”

Baker said county and city officials, law enforcement officials, and outreach workers were among those invited to participate in the new county initiative. She told legislators that invitations went out over the weekend.

In an emailed statement, Baker said the group came out of a conversation in early August between herself, County Administrator Lisa Holmes and County Legislature Chairperson Shawna Black.

In a letter to city officials in early August, Black said collaboration between city and county would be necessary if the plan for the Jungle is to include any services for residents.

City officials have been slow to come to a consensus on a plan to address the encampments.

In April 2022, an informal working group, outside of city government, presented a proposal for the Jungle deemed The Ithaca Designated Encampment Site, or TIDES. 

The TIDES proposal called for the city to restrict the boundaries of the encampment while also providing access to a broad spectrum of on-site services, including 24/7 access to case workers, cabins, restrooms and a kitchen. The plan ultimately failed to gain traction in city government and has undergone revisions in the time since.

In July, a city working group unveiled the most recent proposal, the Administrative Pilot Policy on Unsanctioned Encampments on City Property. The plan included details on enforcement but removed many of the services proposed under TIDES.

County Legislator Greg Mezey said during a committee meeting last week that once the city reaches the final stages with its land use policy, county officials could “start to collaborate with them on how or what type of support is provided in that process.”

The Jungle has been the subject of much attention during the last several years, with a rising population since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. There have been multiple injuries and deaths reported in connection with the site — most recently the kidnapping and murder of Thomas Rath, a man with ties to the encampment.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly characterized the TIDES working group as an initiative of the City of Ithaca. While the group included two councilmembers, it operated outside of city government.

Megan Zerez is a general assignment reporter at the Ithaca Voice. Reach her via email or social media @meganzerez