November 7, 2002

County Homelessness Topic of Panel Talk

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A panel discussion addressing the immediate crisis of homelessness in Tompkins County was held last night in the Kaufman Auditorium of Goldwin Smith Hall.

The event was sponsored by the Cornell Coalition for the Homeless and Alpha Phi Omega, a co-ed service fraternity. Organizers of the discussion included Jyoti Aggarwal 03, an officer of Alpha Phi Omega, Lisa Krauthamer ’04 and Julia Harris ’04, co-chairs of the Cornell Coalition for the Homeless.

Charles Nocera, executive director of the American Red Cross of Tompkins County, facilitated the discussion. He emphasized the urgency of this crisis, stating that it “seems to have hit a crescendo in the last two to three years.”

“This is a community, a county of contrast,” Norcera said. He explained while the median income of Tompkins County residents is approximately $32,000, there is a significant part of the population in episodic poverty. For these people a small crisis could result in an eviction and a cross-over into poverty and homelessness.

Heather Campbell, education director of The Advocacy Center, helps lead a program that offers support for abuse survivors, including victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and their families.

“It is just the tip of the iceberg,” Campbell said. A confidential shelter is available for women and their children who feel threatened at home. The Advocacy Center’s shelter helped 840 victims during last year alone. Campbell cited results from a recent survey of homeless women and children, that found between 40-60 percent state domestic violence as an underlying cause for their conditions.

Carmen Pecora, program coordinator for the Chartwell House, spoke about the common connection between homelessness and drug abuse. The Chartwell House, a program of the Tompkins Community Action organization, provides single rooms to men who need a safe, drug-free living environment. Since opening in 1996, the house has given refuge to 67 men.

Pecora explained that he and the other staff members encourage education, employment searches and anything else that will help the tenants gain self-esteem and basic life and job skills.

Nancy Zook, runaway and homeless youth coordinator for the Ithaca Youth Bureau, admitted that “it takes a dedicated service worker” to be in her field, since adolescent runaways often don’t want help and are not necessarily motivated in the same way as adult homeless people are.

In 2001, the Ithaca Youth Bureau’s homeless-related groups helped 243 children and teenagers.

During the first nine months of 2002, the same organization has served 158 kids.

Carl Feuer Ph.D. ’84, a steering committee member of the Tompkins County Living Wage Coalition, spoke about low income as a cause of homelessness and poverty. His organization works for a more uniform adherence to county, state and federal laws governing a living wage.

Feuer said that the lack of a living wage is “unjust in a society of such wealth.” According to a survey of Tompkins County expenses, a living wage for a single adult with no children needs to be at least $8.43 per hour, assuming the employee works 40 hours per week. The federal minimum wage is currently $5.15 per hour.

Feuer stated that the current epidemic of homelessness is “a problem that is likely to get worse,” without more action by members of the county.

Ron Passmore, a member of the Tompkins County Action Board, spoke of his personal experiences with homelessness and alcoholism. He said that the sudden unemployment he experienced is “a free-fall. Homelessness is a hell of a hard life.”

Passmore commended the county agencies, saying that “the services here are excellent.”

He also stressed the need for more aid. “Here in Tompkins County we have 12 rooms. We could use 50 more.” The panel spent some time offering opportunities for student involvement, ranging from technical assistance in agency offices to direct involvement at drop-in centers and crisis support hotlines. All members agreed that education and outreach are necessary in curbing the numbers of homeless in Tompkins County.

Archived article by Melissa Korn