Julia Nagel/Sun Assistant Photography Editor

Ithaca's homeless shelters and food providers are preparing to provide shelter and meals to the local homeless population as winter approaches.

December 7, 2021

Ithaca Nonprofits Provide Assistance As Temperatures Drop

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Ithaca’s homeless shelters and food providers anticipate a rise in demand as the harsh winter and pandemic-induced supply shortages approach. Organizations such as St. John’s Community Services, the Human Services Coalition of Tompkins County, and Loaves and Fishes are hard at work to provide shelter, food and other assistance to those in need.

St. John’s Community Services has been operating a homeless shelter in Ithaca since 2018. They work closely with the Tompkins County Department of Social Services and the Human Services Coalition of Tompkins County to sign the people up and approve them for shelter.

This formal approval system for obtaining shelter at St. John’s Community Services is only required during the warmer months. Once the weather hits below 32 degrees Fahrenheit, including wind chill, New York State has a Code Blue policy that mandates shelters to accept all those in need. 

In Ithaca, where temperatures are often below freezing, this effect has been prominent. The number of shelter-seekers go from an average of 70 to 80 per night in the summer months to nearly double that amount in the winter. 

“We in Tompkins County do a really good job at Code Blue policy and do meet that need for people,” said Liddy Bargar, director of housing initiatives at Human Services Coalition of Tompkins County. 

St. John’s Community Services only has 20 beds in their shelter, but also uses hotels in Tompkins County to shelter people. For the Code Blue participants during the winter, they also offer extra places to stay in local churches, such as the First Baptist Church of West Danby and St. Paul’s United Methodist Church.

“Knowing that we provide a safe, warm place for people to get out of the elements, particularly in the winter, is very rewarding,” said Roy Murdough ’87 and New York State director of St. John’s Community Services. 

St. John’s Community Services and the Human Services Coalition of Tompkins County also provide services for people in the outdoor homeless encampment located in southwest Ithaca, or what is known as “the Jungle.” Some homeless people are not interested in indoor shelter, despite Code Blue, so the organizations’ priority is to make sure that they at least have the basic necessities to survive the cold.

“In the Enhanced Street Outreach team that I’m a part of, certainly a lot of care and consideration is given into making sure that people have the supplies that they need — sleeping bags, tents, warm clothes, food, that sort of thing,” Bagar said.  

One organization that has been a major part of the outreach team is Loaves and Fishes, a community kitchen located at St. John’s Church. They package food to bring to the homeless encampment and serve free meals five days a week. Although they no longer offer sit-down meals in their dining hall, they have adapted and prepared over 73,000 to-go meals since the start of the pandemic.

“Our mission is to feed the hungry no matter what, so even the coronavirus didn’t diminish our services,” said Rev. Christina Culver, executive director of Loaves and Fishes. 

As the holiday season approaches, Loaves and Fishes will also be providing a full holiday meal on Dec. 24. After successfully providing around 120 meals on Thanksgiving Day, they are looking forward to providing the same or even more for this special event.

Before last year’s holiday meal, Loaves and Fishes hosted a drive to give people a bag with a hat, gloves and socks along with their food. They are also asking the community for donations this year, so that they can once again provide a gift to guests. 

“People who are really suffering from poverty and food insecurity will find Loaves and Fishes for a free meal, but then they quickly realize that we offer a lot more than a free meal,” Culver said. 

Loaves and Fishes works with St. John’s Community Services and other nonprofits, providing meals so that these organizations can serve their clients as well. Many local farms, restaurants and bakeries also contribute to the food supply. Last year, Loaves and Fishes even partnered with the Tompkins County Public Library to offer food and a warm place to stay.

The Cornell community often helps out at these organizations. Students and various clubs often volunteer by handing out food at Loaves and Fishes, running the food pantry at the St. John’s Community Services homeless shelter, and holding clothing and food drives to donate. This past November, the Cornell Fencing team provided pumpkin pies to Loaves and Fishes so that they could offer their guests a Thanksgiving treat.

“Getting connected between the Cornell community and the general Ithaca and Tompkins County community, and doing more of the town-gown kind of work is always a great way for Cornell students especially and faculty to have a better understanding of what the issues and joys in the town that they’re coming to school in are,” Bargar said.