April 6, 2006

Tompkins Serves the Homeless

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For Tompkins County residents that find themselves down and out, the community provides a unique support system that takes the fight against homelessness seriously. This includes a network of Red Cross shelters and food pantries, as well as kitchens like Loaves and Fishes that provide free meals and referral services.

Around the country, most cities are dealing with homelessness by passing laws against sleeping outdoors and panhandling, but the Ithaca community takes a somewhat different angle on the problem.

“We’ve got a holistic approach. We have people helping those who are out on the streets and people who are already in need of housing,” said Cheryll Vosburgh, director of human resources, development and communications at Tompkins County Red Cross.

The unique support network in Ithaca includes the Red Cross shelter, one of just two such shelters operating in the United States, according to Jeff Ward, acting director of shelter operations in Ithaca. The shelter has been open since 1983 and receives financial support from the Department of Social Services, which is mandated by the government to help people in emergency situations.

“This county takes that mandate seriously,” Ward said.

According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, the last 25 years have seen an increased criminalization of the homeless, as cities around the nation pass laws that target homeless populations.

In Ithaca, people who cannot keep stable housing may camp out for the summer, or live in “The Jungle,” an area filled with tents near Cayuga Lake, or they may live at the Red Cross shelter and search for housing.

Ward said the Red Cross of Tompkins County’s homeless operations make it one of just six or seven nationwide that provide the homeless with shelter. He credits part of this success to the initiative of the Department of Social Services in Tompkins County, and in part to volunteers like Cornell students.

“Volunteers are the backbone of the Red Cross. With Cornell University and Ithaca College we have a wealth of talented volunteers that we can tap into.”

One such volunteer is Kirsten Rose’06, president of the Cornell Red Cross.

“It is hard to get people to think outside of the context of the hill and to feel a sense of community with Ithaca and not Cornell,” she said. The Cornell Red Cross spends at least one meeting each semester making bagged lunches for the Red Cross Friendship Center, a drop-in day center that provides support to the homeless or those who are at risk of becoming homeless. The Red Cross also operates a food pantry, located in the basement of the shelter, that is open seven days a week from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.

“We are currently running a food drive in the Becker House to donate food items to the pantry,” Rose said.

“This pantry is the most accessible in the county and serves all of Tompkins County,” Ward said. “Anyone is eligible, and there are no income guidelines in food pantry network.”

The Red Cross shelter has 13 beds, and is set up in an old single family home so people live in bedrooms.

“It’s not like the shelter that you would normally think of, one big room with cots. People have bedrooms,” Ward said.

Local motels house the overflow for the program, which has averaged 35-40 people over the last five years, Ward said.

“For the last five years we’ve had way more than 13 people in our program,” he said. According to Ward, the 47 people in the shelter earlier this week included nine children and one person who has been living in the shelter for 114 days.

In order to live in the shelter, a person must meet eligibility criteria by trying to live and settle in Tompkins County and by being over 16 years of age, Ward said.

“They must agree to follow procedures … to every day actively seek safe, affordable housing for themselves,” Ward said.

Loaves and Fishes, on North Cayuga St., networks with the Red Cross to provide free meals for anyone in need in the county. Volunteers serve lunch at noon on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and dinner is served at 6 p.m. on Tuesday and Thursday. According to Executive Director Chris Potheir, Loaves and Fishes provides volunteer advocates that work with the guests to make referrals about obtaining food, housing and clothing.

“There are a lot of other resources out there, such as the Advocacy Center for battered women,” Potheir said. “There’s a lot of support in the community for people who come here and might need a lot of other services.”

Archived article by Hailey Wilmer
Sun Contributor