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Ithaca officials consider city-approved homeless encampment

Megan Zerez
Officials in Ithaca are looking at new ways to address the city’s homeless encampments. That could include creating one that is city-sanctioned.

The number of people who live in tent encampments in Ithaca has increased over the past five years. City officials there are now considering how to make these spaces safer for residents experiencing homelessness. That could look like an encampment sanctioned and supported by the city.

Up to now, city officials in Ithaca have silently accepted the encampments. The city doesn’t clear tent camps, but doesn’t do much to improve conditions there, either. A task force of housing outreach workers, city leaders and county legislators say it’s time for the city to do more.

They’re asking officials to commit city property to create a supervised encampment. Chris Teitelbaum runs the shelter at St. John’s in Ithaca and helped draft the encampment proposal. He says some people who live in tent shelters aren’t prepared to move indoors, often because of trauma or mental health concerns.

"We can meet them where they're at and begin doing that work right of reacclimating them to being in an environment with other people in close proximity, and able to interact and come back into the community on both the social aspect and economic aspect."

The size of the Ithaca’s encampments fluctuates by season, but housing advocates say as many as 70 people live in them each summer. Fires are frequent, and the first responders can’t easily get there. Teitelbaum’s group wants to set up cabins and campsites for up to 50 people, along with space for case managers and health care providers.

They also plan to put in bathrooms, showers, and lockers for personal belongings. Councilwoman Phoebe Brown supports the plan, but says any programs to address homelessness must also hear input from people of color. Black residents in Ithaca experience homelessness at a disproportionate rate, though the encampments remain primarily white.

"Because there are people who are also…They may not be in encampments, but they're homeless, and they are on the outskirts."

The committee behind the proposal says it wants the encampment’s management to reflect the homeless population so all feel welcome. A third-party would lease and manage it. The council plans to discuss the encampment further next month.