ITHACA, N.Y. — The City of Ithaca’s Common Council approved the creation of a sanctioned encampment zone in September in an effort to address the homeless population spread out across the different pockets of mostly city-owned land in Ithaca’s West End, collectively known as “The Jungle.”
City officials have stated their plans to introduce amenities to the zone in order to incentivize people to live there, but an enforcement protocol was dropped from the plan during a final round of edits after it became clear that the council could not come to a consensus on an appropriate approach. Namely, over how and if law enforcement would be utilized to relocate people.
Now, the discussion of how to respond to people living outside of the unsanctioned encampment is playing out again in City Hall.
Nels Bohn, the Ithaca Urban Renewal Agency’s Director of Community Development, presented a draft response protocol Wednesday to the city’s Planning & Economic Development Committee for feedback.
The draft response protocol outlines different steps for what is termed “actively managed public lands,” and “lightly managed public lands.” The draft was produced by city staff at the request of the council, committee chair Alderperson Rob Gearhart said Wednesday.
The proposal for actively managed public lands lists a five step response, starting with a verbal notification for someone camping outside of the sanctioned zone, followed by reporting the encampment to outreach workers and a designated city official. A 24-hour notice to vacate would be posted at the camp site along with a list of shelter and housing resources and a map of where the sanctioned encampment zone is.
These three steps would be taken by city staff under the current proposal, but the fourth step — removal of an encampment — would be handled by city staff with the support of the Ithaca Police Department’s yet-to-be created unarmed officers unit if requested.
The fifth and final step for actively managed public lands under the proposal is remedian of the campsite.
For lightly managed public lands, the response protocol draft lists a pre-site visit that includes an “offer to coordinate relocation” to the sanctioned encampment zone, and reporting the encampment to outreach workers.
Campers would be given up to three warnings to relocate to the sanctioned encampment zone with offers of support to do so before the encampment would be removed. In the event that happens, some personal items would be “temporarily stored” according to the proposal, such as wallets, purses, photographs and IDs.
These steps are listed as being the work of city staff assigned by Ithaca’s incoming City Manageror the City Homeless Outreach Coordinator — a part-time position that has not been filled since being created through the city’s 2023 budget.
Bohn told councilors that the proposal is “conceptual” and said it would need to be “fleshed out” in order to become policy. He said it offers a different roadmap than what city councilors were discussing prior to the sanctioned encampment policy’s approval in September.
Bohn said relocating people camping outside the sanctioned encampment zone could extend to helping them find a place in a shelter or even housing.
“This approach is designed to try to respond to the criticisms of the other earlier enforcement protocol that had a six-step process, that was six weeks in timeframe to respond to an issue, and also at the end of that process involved citation from a police officer,” Bohn said.
He added “We’re trying to […] minimize the police interaction and also make it a shorter time period to respond.”
However, Bohn said that “city departments and staffing are not really totally equipped to take on a challenge like this.” His comment marks another in a series of statements from city officials that describe city resources alone as inadequate to achieve the still-forming vision of a sanctioned encampment zone.
Since September, County and city officials have met in a working group to better define what a potential collaboration between Tompkins County and the City of Ithaca would look like. Successful inter-municipal coordination and partnering with nonprofits will determine if the sanctioned encampment zone works or not, Bohn said.
“I think the city’s success will be very much determined whether we can have true collaboration and we can get that and, and make that work. There’s no reason why it shouldn’t be able to work,” Bohn said.
He also noted that resources are limited right now, even outside of the city.
Tammy Baker left her position as the county’s Homeless Outreach Coordinator, Bohn said. He noted that there is just one outreach worker in the city employed by Family and Children Services, which are salaried through a sales-tax agreement between the county and the city.
Alderperson Cynthia Brock pointed out that the policy that Bohn presented seems to be “moving forward as if there is no county support.”
“We have a number of not-for-profits who are doing a lot of great work out there as well. But in terms of a coordinated process that has some city or county involvement in it, we have limited resources right now,” Bohn said. “And we don’t want to build a policy that relies on that heavily, because it’s an uncertain resource, I think.”