Juan Arredondo / The New York Times

With ongoing construction across New York State, Ithaca's homeless are displaced from their encampment.

May 5, 2020

As Ithaca’s Homeless Grapples With Increased Risks to COVID-19, Charities Try to Combat Challenges

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Several residents of The Jungle — a large homeless settlement in Ithaca — face an increased risk to COVID-19 after a flood control infrastructure project in early April forced them to relocate, according to local housing advocacy groups.

Residents of The Jungle’s main encampment behind Walmart now live in even closer quarters than before because of the project, according to Deborah Wilke, a homeless crisis alleviation coordinator for Second Wind Cottages, a sober living community designed to help homeless men build life skills.

The project caused over 15 out of nearly 40 encampment residents to relocate to another part of The Jungle, according to Wilke.

“It went right down to the line, bulldozers were there to knock down their structures as they were moving their last belongings, but everyone did get moved,” Wilke said. “[They were moved] within the same area but out of the construction zone.”

The incident shed light on how the pandemic has worsened many of the problems homeless people face on a daily basis, and Ithaca-area advocacy groups are now working to mitigate these issues.

Many Ithaca-area charities including Loaves and Fishes, Second Wind Cottages, Family and Children’s Service of Ithaca and Salvation Army collaborated to organize homeless outreach services during this uncertain time.

“The COVID-19 pandemic and the situation it puts us in has exacerbated all the problems and challenges homeless people face everyday,” said Reverend Christina Culver, Director of Loaves and Fishes.

To accommodate Jungle residents suddenly forced out of the encampment, Second Wind Cottages helped residents move and provided them with three 8×10 foot sheds and new tents.

“I am not opposed to the project, I am opposed to the movement of people amidst the [COVID-19] pandemic,” Wilke said. “They had to move, they needed help moving and this increased the density of people living where they are, which with social distancing, was not ideal.”

Typically, residents of The Jungle lack access to running water, which can increase the risk of infection. Wilke and other volunteers provide residents with masks, gloves and handwashing stations in order to reduce this risk.

Outreach workers from many Ithaca agencies take extra precautions to minimize the risk of infection between themselves and Jungle residents.

“We have been intentional about cutting back on face-to-face contact whenever possible,” Wilke said.“When outreach workers do go into the Jungle, we are wearing masks and gloves.”

Even for homeless people that live in shelters, the pandemic has forced many to move out into hotels as shelters reduce their capacity to promote social distancing.

Second Wind Cottages did not reduce its resident capacity because residents live in 18 separate buildings, allowing for necessary social distancing. However, this is not the case for other Ithaca area shelters, like St. John’s Community Services homeless shelter and the Advocacy Center’s domestic violence shelter.

St. John’s Community Services shelter is housing over 100 homeless people in Ithaca area hotels. Due to confidentiality concerns, the organization did not provide the names of the hotels. St. John’s Community Services workers deliver meals prepared by Loaves and Fishes to people sheltered in hotels.

Additionally, the shelter’s food pantry also now provides food and other supplies through a window, rather than letting clients into its building.

The St. John’s Community Services homeless shelter is also coordinating testing and housing for homeless people with COVID-19 symptoms.

“We quarantine them until we get test results back,” said Tara Richardson, a case manager at the shelter. “The hotels we use have a quarantine section. Luckily, no one has tested positive.”

Richardson and other St. John’s Community Services workers periodically call their clients to help with housing issues and to check on how they are feeling.

The Advocacy Center also now provides other services remotely, including its 24/7 hotline, 607-277-5000. Similar to St. John’s Community Services, the Advocacy Center currently operates at a reduced capacity.

“We have lowered the house density to allow for social distancing in the house,” said Advocacy Center director Heather Campbell. “We normally have a nine bed shelter and we are now taking no more than three family units or seven people.”

With increased collaboration between Ithaca-area charities, these groups are now more optimistic that they can address the needs of Ithaca’s homeless population.

“The teamwork involved in our front-line agencies to make sure the most needy folks in Tompkins county’s needs are met is impressive, effective and heartening,” Culver said.