Adrian Boteanu / Sun Staff Photographer

Svante Myrick '09 and members of the State Assembly discuss a new approach to combat homelessness on Wednesday

February 2, 2017

Ithaca Mayor Endorses Legislation to Reduce Local Homelessness

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Standing beside state representatives, Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick ’09 endorsed a state program Wednesday that he said would prevent people from falling prey to homelessness — a crisis sharply felt in the streets and shelter beds of Ithaca and Tompkins County.

The Home Stability Support Program would provide statewide rental subsidies to 80,000 households — including 150,000 children — that are on the brink of homelessness despite being eligible for public assistance, said Assemblyman Andrew Hevesi (D-28), chair of the Assembly Social Services Committee, at a press conference.

In Ithaca, the legislation would help 32 people who are on the street unsheltered, 40 using shelter services, at least 10 under threat of eviction and more than 100 who are couch-surfing and have insecure housing on a night-to-night basis, according to Richard Bennett, regional director of the Ithaca Rescue Mission — a day center, emergency shelter and low-barrier permanent housing provider downtown.

The state and federally-funded rental subsidy would be managed and implemented by the Tompkins County Department of Social Services to help prevent people from needing to use the shelter and to support the financial needs of people seeking housing, Bennett said.

“For us, trying to care for them, support them, get them connected to housing as quick as we can is one of our challenges and certainly right now one of the issues is money as a barrier to being able to move in,” he said. “Hopefully [the legislation] helps eliminate or at least reduce one of those barriers our clients have in moving into housing.”

Decades after shelter allowance for people on public assistance has not been raised in New York State, the plan would take federal and state funds to relieve the burden of local counties, districts and municipalities to close the gap between market rents and shelter allowance for public assistance recipients, according to Hevesi.

“We’re in the worst crisis we’ve seen in New York since the Great Depression,” he said, adding that public assistance recipients have been getting maxed for shelter allowance at $447 a month as rent rose.

The statewide homelessness crisis has reached “epidemic proportions,” the City of Ithaca described, with rising housing costs intensifying the problem locally.

“We shouldn’t have to be sheltering individuals when it is exponentially cheaper to keep them in their current housing,” Hevesi said, stressing the fiscal benefits of the legislation.

Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton (D-125), whose district includes Ithaca, was involved in the drafting of the legislation and applauded the mayor’s support.

“We have a statewide problem of homelessness,” she said. “It’s here, it’s everywhere — it’s certainly in the city as well. We want to tackle it statewide.”

The plan already has the support of 110 state assemblymembers and has received a warm reception in the State Senate, Hevesi said.

“The best solution to homeless is to prevent it from happening from the first place,” Bennett said, joining the officials’ praise for the program.

Bennett said that while many Rescue Mission clients work, their employment does not cover the cost of living in Ithaca, which forces them to leave the city. For many other users of the day center and emergency shelters, homelessness comes with additional threats of violence, abuse and victimization.

Myrick, who was sporadically homeless as a child, said the program is necessary for Ithaca’s families to thrive.

“I am convinced that my life was saved, that I was able to go to a school like Cornell, that I was able to eventually take on my job as the mayor of the City of Ithaca because I got the support I needed to be stable,” he said. “It’s one of my goals of my life that no children in Ithaca have to grow up in the same kind of uncertainty and fear that I did.”