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Ithaca could ban camping on city property to limit encampments, report suggests

Ithaca encampment policy - WEB

BINGHAMTON, NY (WSKG)—The city of Ithaca is reconsidering its policies – or lack thereof – on homeless encampments. As many as 70 people live in a string of unsanctioned encampments, known as “The Jungle,” in the southwest part of the city each summer.

Although Ithaca does not technically allow camping on any city property, the policy isn’t enforced, in part because of the widespread shortage of places to rehouse people coming out of homelessness in Tompkins County.

According to an assessment from the Human Services Coalition of Tompkins County, prepared by a consultant with Horn Research, a significant bottleneck exists in the housing system. In 2020, there were only 12 beds available in transitional and permanent housing, while 114 people were either in emergency shelter or unsheltered.

Waitlists for public housing and housing choice vouchers in the county are more than two years long.

Nels Bohn, director of the city’s Urban Renewal Agency, said while the city, county and its non-profit partners work to address barriers to permanent housing, municipal staff need clear, consistent guidance on how they should address encampments across departments.

“The police get some directions at one point, and the Department of Public Works gets another direction. The planning office might have some directions,” Bohn said. “Nobody has a real focused approach to this issue.”

In a report presented to the Common Council’s Planning and Economic Development Committee on Wednesday, Bohn recommended the city prohibit all encampments. He suggested, however, that the city define where the policy would be strictly enforced, and where it would be emphasized less.

That way, Bohn said, the city could keep encampments away from crowded or dangerous areas, and concentrate them in places where there is better access to service workers and emergency responders.

“I would expect that any high priority areas, when there is camping, would require a program of the city to figure out how to do clearance with responsible, advanced notice and as much support as possible,” Bohn said.

The committee voted unanimously to accept the policy recommendation for further discussion, although that does not adopt it into law. Ithaca Fire Chief Tom Parsons said unless that happens, the situation will not improve.

“We're still going to have homelessness in places that are going to be hard to reach. We're going to continue to have fires,” Parsons said. “We're going to have medical emergencies in very remote areas, which we do now.”

First responders, Parsons added, often do not know the locations of secluded encampments until after an emergency occurred.

Some council members raised concerns about whether enforcing such a policy would criminalize homelessness. Any policy, Alderperson Cynthia Brock attested, must coincide with efforts to find people permanent housing.

“Enforcement doesn't mean a ticket,” Brock said. “It means working compassionately with an individual to try to get them to a more appropriate location.”

Bohn said the suggested policy would provide time for housing providers and outreach workers to expand the options they have to help people transition out of homelessness.

The Common Council will discuss the report next month. It remains separate from a proposal to form a city-supervised encampment, known as the Ithaca Dedicated Encampment Site (TIDES), presented in April.