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Ithaca Common Council continues discussion on homeless encampment policy

Ithaca common councilors say they will continue to discuss how to address homeless encampments. The Council voted Wednesday to “accept” a policy proposal on the issue. That did not, however, put any legislation into law.

The proposal, authored by the city's Urban Development Agency Director Nels Bohn, suggested the Council enforce the technical ban on tent camps on city property, but choose specific areas to prioritize when clearing tents.

Bohn said that could lead people out of crowded or dangerous areas of the city, consolidating encampments in safer ones.

“Other areas of the city, which can be defined by the Common Council, would be areas where the harm reduction model would take precedence over enforcement of the prohibition,” Bohn explained.

Up to 70 people live in the string of tent camps known as “The Jungle” in Ithaca each year. A report from the Human Services Coalition of Tompkins County released this year confirmed that people who want to transition to more permanent housing have few affordable options.

High rents and low vacancy rates in the county result in long stays in shelters or encampments, the report said, and frequent returns to homelessness.

While Alderperson Jorge DeFendini, who represents Collegetown, said he appreciated the work done on the proposal, he urged the Council to focus further on how the city can help house people outside of encampments.

"People are upset that we have encampments throughout the city. I am upset about it. I imagine that the people who live in those encampments are upset about it," DeFendini said. "I think that’s a result of the fact that housing is becoming increasingly unattainable and unaffordable."

The policy proposal is separate from the one presented earlier this year for a supervised, dedicated encampment site. Bohn said the proposal, however, could lead to city-sanctioned encampments, but that’s not the focus of this initial phase.