Downtown Ithaca’s Crisis Outreach Center has created a space for outreach workers to connect with and assist people experiencing homelessness through socially distanced services.
The outreach center opened in February to support Ithacans in need. Before the center opened, outreach workers primarily met with homeless individuals at encampments themselves.
Instead of focusing on one specific need such as food or medical care, the center provides comprehensive, individualized services by appointment only.
Richard Rivera, an outreach center worker, uses the center as a meeting place to assist individuals housed at Ithaca’s winter shelters. He is currently working to find housing for the shelter residents, who must leave in April as the weather warms.
The center incorporates knowledge and resources from a variety of Ithaca’s social service organizations, including Opportunities, Alternatives and Resources, which protects the rights of incarcerated individuals in Tompkins County, Second Wind Cottages, which provides homes for homeless individuals, and Respectable, Equitable Access to Compassionate Healthcare, which provides inclusive health services to those experiencing homelessness.
With a location close to Ithaca’s homeless encampment, the center offers many benefits for the organizations involved, including access to community resources. Deb Wilke, homeless crisis alleviation coordinator for Second Wind Cottages, said this proximity allows quick access to medical supplies and warm clothing, since it’s a convenient downtown location for Ithacans to drop off donations.
When starting the center, Wilke connected with Rivera about making a space to serve the separate needs of Ithacans experiencing homeslessness.
“My dream is … to have one drop in place where somebody could access social services — food stamps, medical care, a shower, food, maybe charge their phone — all of that in one place, rather than going from place to place,” Wilke said.
When Rivera found an open sublet downtown, everything fell into place. The outreach center signed the lease in February, and the center plans to remain open until August.
Wilke said although those who attended the opening meetings before opening wore masks and used hand sanitizer, the center provides a stronger alternative for connection.
“In the outreach center, they can come inside, they can have a cup of coffee, and we can socially distance and be safer for both of us,” Wilke said.
As the center continues its work, according to Rivera, it looks to provide services to homeless individuals who do not live in the winter encampments. According to Rivera, these locations disproportionately serve white Ithacans experiencing homelessness.
According to Rivera, when Ithaca organizations focus solely on the encampments, they can unequally distribute care to white homeless individuals. Rivera helps address this disparity by also providing outreach services elsewhere in the city, such as on Ithaca’s Southside, where more Black and Brown Ithacans experiencing homelessness live.
Rivera provides outreach by going to Southside sites frequented by Ithacans experiencing homelessness, such as the Southside Community Center, Cayuga Addiction Recovery Services and the Southern Tier Aids Program parking lot.
In the future, Wilke and Rivera hope the center can act as a vaccination spot for homeless individuals. Right now, REACH is having vaccination clinics at the Friendship Center within St. John’s Community Center, and Wilke and Rivera have worked to transport people from shelters to the center.
However, Wilke said, the goal is ultimately to extend beyond the Friendship Center to hotels that serve as shelters, and then progress to the Crisis Outreach Center’s downtown space.