A recently awarded $50,000 grant will support a new program by the Downtown Ithaca Alliance, targeting the homeless and hungry in Ithaca, Mayor Svante Myrick ’09 announced Tuesday.
Ithaca was one of six cities — chosen from 245 applicants — to receive the grant from the U.S. Conference of Mayors, Myrick wrote in a Facebook post.
Through the program, called Pay It Forward, Ithacans in need will be able to receive free necessities such as food and toiletries from participating businesses, according to Myrick. These necessities are funded by donations from boxes set up around the Commons.
“The boxes provide a way to give without fear that when you give to a panhandler your money may ultimately end up in the hands of a controlling boyfriend or a drug dealer,” Myrick wrote in his post.
Pay It Forward began more than a year ago as a solo venture by Terry Little, owner of the Center Cafe. At the cafe, customers can pre-pay for a meal for someone in need. The purchase is then written on a sticky note and posted on a whiteboard, available for a future customer to ‘cash in.’ Little said he was inspired by local business Ithacash, which ran a similar program called the Holiday Hunger Games in the winter of 2015.
“After that ran its course and ended, since it was such a big success, I decided to go forward and continue it,” Little said.
At that time, the Downtown Ithaca Alliance was discussing how to manage the issue of panhandlers in the Commons — which had garnered complaints from store owners and residents — according to Nicole Pagano, a member of DIA’s board of directors and owner of Green Street Pharmacy.
“We thought we’d morph it into something more positive,” Pagano said. “Instead of showing people away or making people feel unwelcome, perhaps we could help meet their basic needs and then they wouldn’t need to do that anymore.”
DIA decided to adopt Pay It Forward, expand it to include other necessities in addition to food and integrate it with its community outreach program, said DIA Executive Director Gary Ferguson.
“We liked it a whole lot,” Ferguson said. “We thought it was something we could expand and do downtown-wide, and something that could help us address a real issue that’s out there.”
Ferguson added that one of the reasons why Pay It Forward appealed to DIA was its directness — unlike other programs for combating food insecurity, Pay It Forward requires no registration, paperwork, or proof of need before people can use it.
“We think it’s a program that’s respectful for the folks who are in need,” he said. “It can be very debilitating to go through a lot of those processes, and [Pay It Forward] doesn’t have any of them.”
According to Ferguson, another attractive aspect of Pay It Forward is that it involves the collaboration of multiple sectors of the community: the public in giving, businesses in participating and community outreach workers in making the program known to those who need it. Ferguson especially stressed the role of social service agencies in providing resources to Ithacans who use the program.
“This isn’t meant to be a program that’s going to feed somebody for the next year and a half,” he said. “It’s designed to be something to help people who have an emergency or a need until we can help them get to where they need to go.”
‘Spilling Out Into the Streets’
Green Street Pharmacy — which implemented a pilot version of Pay It Forward several months ago — has already given out $2,500 worth of goods, according to Pagano.
“Not a day goes by that somebody doesn’t come in and benefit from this,” she said.
Pagano told the story of a man who had just moved to Ithaca and couldn’t afford basic necessities. He originally came to Green Street Pharmacy hoping to use Pay It Forward to buy a toothbrush, but Pagano and her co-workers encouraged him to fill a bag with other items such as a razor, soap, and toilet paper. The man returned several months later and gave back $20 to the program “because he was so appreciative,” she said.
“Ultimately, that’s what it is about,” Pagano said. “You give to someone in need and when they’re in a better position they give to the next person in line.”
Little agreed, saying that Ithacans in need regularly use the program at Center Cafe, sometimes up to six times a day. However, he also admitted that people occasionally abuse the system, “usually young kids” who use the credit to buy themselves food.
“But it being such a small town and such a small place, I know who the ones are that really need it,” he said.
Currently, only Center Cafe, Green Street Pharmacy and Casablanca are participating in Pay It Forward. DIA is planning to expand the program and expects to eventually have at least six partner stores downtown, according to Ferguson.
Little said this expansion is a realization of his original hope in creating Pay It Forward — that other businesses would join him and help his idea “spill out into the streets.”
“I’m glad to see that it’s taken the foothold that it has,” he said. “Ithaca’s that way. It’s the perfect place for a program like this.”