December 4, 2008

Homeless Find Community, Assistance in Ithaca

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This is the second part of a two-part series analyzing socioeconomic issues at Cornell and in the surrounding community.

When most Cornell students walk into Wegmans for a routine grocery run, they are not thinking about Ithaca’s homeless only a few hundred yards away.
The Jungle is a small tract of land located between the railroad tracks and the Lake Cayuga inlet that provides a safe haven and a sense of community for several of the city’s homeless.
The city has no jurisdiction to kick the residents off the land because the railroad owns the land; in fact, conductors on passing trains often throw water and supplies into the Jungle.
“You’re on your own down here,” said Eddie, a former Jungle resident who still visits on occasion. “It’s a lonely life, but it’s a good life for them.”
Eddie is currently between jobs, but when he first spoke to The Sun two weeks ago, Eddie was a construction worker. Though he is keeping a roof over his head, finding work is far from easy.
“When people hear the word ‘Jungle,’ they don’t want to give you a job,” he said. According to Eddie, many of the Jungle’s residents are there by choice. Some have managed to acquire jobs, yet still reside in their tents in the Jungle.
“The people who work treat you differently,” he said. “[The residents] choose to live here and avoid life, taxes, responsibility.”
For many other Jungle residents, there is no choice. Even with a steady job, rent is often unaffordable. According to the Tompkins County Affordable Housing Needs Assessment for 2006, 500 households spend half their income on housing; another 10,000 pay 30 percent.
The U.S. Census Bureau Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates calculated 13.5 percent of Tompkins County lived below the poverty line in 2004, compared to 12.7 percent nationally and 14.5 percent in New York State.
These numbers are the most recent available, but the current economic crisis will likely drive them up. According to James Brown, president of United Way of Tompkins County, food pantries have recently seen the number of people seeking food double in some cases.
“This is a time when there is a lot of concern and we’re seeing increased need, certainly in the area of hunger and food security,” Brown said.
The United Way of Tompkins County, in partnership with the Cornell United Way, have initiated several programs for food donation in the past year, including the Stephen E. Garner Day of Caring on Sept. 11. According to the University, over 10,000 pounds of food and personal items were donated to food pantries and shelters across the county.
Though more and more people may need assistance as a result of the current economic crisis, corporate and individual donations are feeling the pressure as well.
According to Brown, though corporate donations have decreased, individuals are continuing to give — many for the first time. “We’re seeing more individuals come forward and make gifts, and that’s very heartening to think that when times are tough people are deciding to give, and to give more if they can,” Brown said.
Individual and community efforts seem to be the largest base for relief in today’s economy. Loaves and Fishes is a community-run soup kitchen on North Cayuga Street. Volunteers from all aspects of Ithaca’s community — from Cornell and Ithaca College students, to university professors, to the poverty-stricken themselves — come together daily to serve meals.
C.J. Karrer ’10 is a student volunteer at the soup kitchen. “You definitely get to meet some interesting people, and you do feel good about yourself,” he said. “These people are in need.”
One Loaves and Fishes employee, Rob, greets guests coming for meals. One of seven paid workers, he came to Ithaca on March 21 of this year after leaving his job in Pennsylvania. Rob, who lived in his car until the cost of gas outweighed rent, has a Ph.D. in clinical psychology. When he first came to Loaves and Fishes he was looking for a meal; now he works to help others around him, even though his own situation is not ideal.
“What I’m seeing at work is that when it gets down to neighborhood level, we’re caring for each other and spreading out from there instead of looking to some place way out in space to come and rescue us. I like to focus on that, on what I can do in my immediate surroundings to be a help. And this is pretty close,” he said.
Many of the guests at Loaves and Fishes rely on this community effort as their sole source of food, but not everyone in the line was there out of necessity.
“One of the things about Loaves and Fishes is that it’s not just meant to be a poor person’s soup kitchen, it’s a community kitchen,” said Neil, a Loaves and Fishes volunteer who comes to the kitchen on a daily basis. “No matter who you are or where you’re from, everybody needs community. Everybody needs people that they can talk to, interact with, and look around and you see people from all facets of our society.”
On an organizational level, The Red Cross and the Department of Social Services of Tompkins County are two of the primary resources for poverty relief. Ithaca’s homeless can find a bed in the Red Cross shelter, and volunteers recruit social workers to address particular cases.
But many of Ithaca’s residents are disillusioned by these systems. Sandy, a volunteer at Loaves and Fishes, has been advocating for one family for 10 years, since their children were unjustly removed from their home. Sandy credits the DSS with this mistreatment.
[The Department of Social Services is] treating everybody as the lowest common denominator, the worst-case scenario,” said Zina McRae, another volunteer at Loaves and Fishes. “When you have a family like this, they are treated like they are criminals. I think that’s the main concern, because these people are not threats to society, but they are treated that way in a very abusive manner.”
Loaves and Fishes volunteers serve as advocates for members of the community.
“Many times we will go with people down to the Department of Social Services because if they see us there they will treat people with a little more respect,” Sandy said.
Some, like the residents of the Jungle, do not want to subject themselves to the restrictions posed by shelters and the Red Cross.
“People don’t want to live in shelters, with curfews and restrictions,” Eddie said. “No one wants to live like that. People don’t want to be told what to do.”
Neil is an advocate for Loaves and Fishes. Though Neil never lived in the Jungle, he agreed with Eddie.
“They choose to live there because they’re not willing or able to do the things necessary to get into the Red Cross or one of the other programs,” he said. “Every program in our community has limitations.”
According to Sandy, shelter is a right that should not carry stipulations.
“There are some people who are not going to do what they tell them to do in order to have a roof over your head, and I don’t think you should have to jump through hoops in order to be brought in out of the cold,” she said.
“All these things can be worked out. It’s just not a priority with people to take care of the poor,” Sandy said. “We don’t value human beings, that’s the problem.”
The problems faced by the poor in Ithaca are not uncommon. But Ithaca is a college town, and some question what the role of the University should be in assisting the poor.
Ithaca’s economy relies on Cornell; the University is the largest employer in a 17-county region. Cornell also feeds into many community nonprofit organizations, often without publicity.
“The realities are usually under the radar and deal with relationships and often with the allocation of resources,” Gary Stewart, assistant director of government and community relations, said. “We donate very quietly a lot of money to various nonprofits, and the school district, and we give money to the city of Ithaca for various things. But it’s not a lot of fanfare, it’s being a good neighbor. That’s our operating philosophy.”
According to Sandy, though, it’s more about individuals than organizations.
“I wouldn’t say ever it’s a university’s responsibility,” Sandy said. “It’s an individual’s, a human being’s. What’s your responsibility? What’s my responsibility? It’s not the university,” she said. “You have to answer for yourself.”

More pictures are featured in a slideshow at http://cornellsun.com/features/slideshow/2008/12/03/jungle.