Boris Tsang / Sun Staff Photographer

Local activists addressed housing problems that plague Ithaca's homeless population.

February 20, 2018

Ithaca Needs More Affordable Housing, Local Activists Say

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According to local activists, the solution to homelessness in America may actually be deceptively simple: build houses.

Describing the current homelessness situation in Ithaca as “ludicrous” and worse than before, a panel of local activists advocated to find sustainable solutions to the housing crisis on Saturday afternoon.

“The number one cause of homelessness is lack of affordable housing,” said panelist Mark Horvath.

Horvath is the founder of Invisible People, a digital storytelling platform that helps homeless people share their experiences. He was joined by three other panelists: Mike Foster, the program manager at the Rescue Mission, a non-profit that provides temporary housing and resources for the homeless; Carmen Guidi, the founder of Second Wind Cottages, a non-profit that provides housing and support for the homeless; and Deb Wilke, an active volunteer at Second Wind Cottages who wanted to provide a “female perspective” on the homeless situation.

Many in Ithaca’s homeless community currently gather in ‘The Jungle,’ an encampment in the woods behind Wegmans, The Sun previously described. The Jungle is technically owned by the City of Ithaca, so individuals — including the homeless — could be arrested for trespassing if they go there, even if they go to help people, Foster said.

“We were just shocked at what we saw [at The Jungle], in close proximity to all the big box stores that everyone visits in the area. A short walk back to the woods and there are people living in tents, in huts, no running water, no facilities,” Wilke said, adding that The Jungle is especially scary for the women who live there.

“Those women need us,” she said.

After describing their encounters and conversations with those living in The Jungle, the panelists discussed the stigma of homelessness and how society tends to blame the individuals for their situation instead of understanding the larger context of the issue.

“[The majority of the general public] say, ‘you drug addict, you bum, you’re lazy, the number one solution is get a job,’” Horvath said. “Well, there’s more truckers than any other profession in this country, and in 5 to 10 years, trucks are going to drive themselves.”

“‘Get a job’ is not really a practical solution,” he continued. “The number one cause of homelessness is lack of affordable housing. When you add in mental illness, childhood trauma, hurricanes, there’s a lot of causes to homelessness, yet as humans we blame the person, [saying] ‘it’s their fault, I’m not going to help them.’”

Guidi, who at one time housed people from The Jungle in campers behind his house, discussed a model called “Housing First” that prioritizes finding permanent housing in order to solve the homeless crisis.

“People can’t find housing, and the answer is really simple, you just build housing,” he said.

Guidi argued that, while people might object to this program because they think that the homeless don’t deserve to just be given a house, such a mindset is “pure ignorance” that ignores the fact that the Housing First model has been working in communities around the country. “There’s no comparison to how much it costs to temporarily house people when you can put them in permanent housing,” he said. “You would save millions of dollars.”

Foster added that it currently costs about a quarter of a million dollars a month to temporarily house people in Ithaca, and Guidi later said that doing anything other than building housing is just putting a “Band-Aid” on the problem.

The world runs on money, Horvath said, and figuring out a way for developers to make money off of creating affordable housing would have a significant impact in solving the issue.

While not everyone can or should go down to The Jungle, the panelists emphasized that there was something everyone could do to help address the problem, from advocating for policy changes, to donating land and money, to giving their time.

In the future, Horvath thinks that the homelessness situation will only get worse, especially since the presidential administration wants to cut roughly $8 billion from the budget that would help affordable housing, and emphasized the important role of faith-based organizations.

“The only way that I see the future is faith-based organizations — Muslims, temples, Jewish, Christians, stepping up and working together to end homelessness and to help other crises,” he said.

Moderator Lee Rayburn summarized the key takeaways of the discussion, emphasizing the need for audience members to speak with those who weren’t at the panel to help address the stigma of homelessness. He added that the other priorities were building homes, organizing as a community, building relationships with the homeless and advocating for policy changes.