Ari Dubow / Sun City Editor

Ithaca's St. John's Church has worked to provide shelter for homeless individuals and partner with other community groups to distribute food to community members in need.

October 11, 2020

Tompkins County Nonprofits Respond to Worsening Conditions for Homeless, Food Insecure

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Public health restrictions have eased since March, but the damage caused by the virus continues to reverberate in Tompkins County, exacerbating the plight of the homeless and food-insecure population. 

At the onset of the pandemic, several outreach organizations in Tompkins County provided crucial support to in-need members of the community. Months later, those local nonprofits continue to balance their responses to the surge of need with public health standards that make in-person gatherings a challenge.

St. John’s Community Center, a homeless shelter in Tompkins County, has been using local hotels to provide shelter to homeless individuals since the spring, after social distancing guidelines significantly reduced the capacity of the on-site shelter. 

Much of the unhoused population — including those living at the homeless encampment known as the Jungle and not living in shelters provided by St. John’s — make use of the organization’s Friendship Center.

Director Roy Murdough equated the Friendship Center to a “living room for the homeless and disenfranchised,” where community members are welcome to shower, use the bathroom, get a meal and take advantage of other services. The Friendship Center has become an even more crucial resource for the homeless population, which no longer has access to the same public facilities that served as resources for them before the coronavirus.

“People could use restrooms, get something hot to eat, get out of the weather,” said Keith Payne, the Jungle outreach coordinator for Loaves and Fishes, a free meal service in Tompkins County. “But when a lot of the stores closed their businesses, reduced their hours and reduced their capacity, that meant those resources were gone.” 

Although the Friendship Center fills this resource gap for both the sheltered and unsheltered population, the pandemic has flipped how they deliver their services. Once a place for congregation and community interaction, the Friendship Center now operates on an individual level.

“Everyone used to all sit around and … have a communal meal with as many as 50 to 60 people, but that doesn’t happen anymore,” Murdough said. “We still have lunch three days a week, but they are now handed out in a brown paper bag.”

Second Wind Cottages, which offers transitional living units for formerly homeless men, has also effectively adjusted its operations to meet the housing needs of its clients. But, like St. John’s Community Center, public health measures have limited its community-building abilities.

Acting in accordance with their mission “to house and walk with people toward restored lives,” the organization is working to provide their clients with the individual support they need. With widespread job loss, the staff shifted their normal duties and worked with the men, many of whom have struggled with sobriety in the past, to secure unemployment benefits.

Amid the stress of unemployment combined with the increased inaccessibility of mental health services, the Cottage community has also seen many of its clients fall back into drug or alcohol usage.

Without the organization’s usual programming, executive director Sandra Sorensen said that her main duties have changed to emphasize individually listening to her clients and offering them support for their struggles.

“It was like the rug got pulled up from under them,” Sorensen said. “A lot of programming and things would normally happen around here just kind of went away and that exacerbated the heaviness of all of the other loss these men faced.”

One of the biggest barriers for the homeless population is the lack of a mailing address — particularly when it comes to receiving stimulus checks. Both Second Wind Cottages and St. John’s have been able to help: Each cottage at Second Wind has its own mailing address, and approximately 200 people — both unsheltered and sheltered members of the community — use St. John’s Community Center’s.

The financial hardship generated by COVID-19 has not only affected Tompkins County’s homeless population, but has also exacerbated food insecurity. In response, St. John’s Community Center has leveraged the services of other community groups, like Loaves and Fishes, which provides free meals to in-need members of the Tompkins County community.

Since April, the number of meals Loaves and Fishes serves have nearly tripled. They distribute approximately 250 free meals each day to the homeless in the Jungle Encampment, St. John’s Shelter and anyone referred to them by the Tompkins County Department of Health and Social Services.

A persistent challenge, however, is the loss of the community-building approach. Those they serve can no longer congregate in the dining hall to share a communal meal, and instead take all food to go or receive it directly from front-line organizations.

“A huge part of our ministry was the community we share with our guests and volunteers, and the advocacy that resulted from that,” said Rev. Christina Culver, director of Loaves and Fishes. “This aspect of our ministry is unfortunately only happening to a minimal degree right now.”

But operating in tandem with other community partners under this modified delivery and to-go system, the organization has expanded to reach populations that were otherwise inaccessible

“This situation, in a way, has helped us reach people we may not have before because they had difficulty at least on a daily basis coming to our building,” Culver said. “So if there has been anything good to come out of this situation, that has been a plus.”

Further, these charities and Tompkins County agencies have increased their collaboration to better meet community needs collectively.

“It is important as a community to come together and work with our partners to try and figure out how to fill that gap,” Murdough said. “I don’t know what the answer is yet, but I am working with others to see if we can find a solution.”