April 1, 2023
Ithaca, NY | 67°F


Living below the line

Before the sun rises every day, Marvin Lanscown, a sanitation worker for the City of Ithaca, has picked up the trash from outside the homes of Ithaca residents all over town. But at the end of the day, he doesn’t have a home of his own to return to.

Lanscown and his daughter, Katie, have been homeless for three weeks since their house in Brooktondale changed from rent to own. In addition to the $400 a month he paid in rent, Lanscown would have to pay more than $1,300 a month in land and school taxes in order to own.

“I couldn’t have covered that,” he said. “I had to let the house go.”

The day the Lanscowns lost their home they became two of the roughly 40 people who seek emergency housing from the American Red Cross of Tompkins County every night.

When Lanscown was able to get a room at the Red Cross emergency shelter, he said he immediately felt a sense of family – even for Katie, who started the ninth grade at Ithaca High School in September.

“It makes a person feel bad that she has to live in a place like this,” he said. “But … she’s got other girls to talk to and play with and get to know.”

The family that Lanscown found was part of the 18.1 percent of the Tompkins County population that is living under the poverty line – about $20,000 a year for a family of four, according to the Census Bureau’s 2006 American Community Survey.

The median income per capita in Tompkins County is $23,688, about $1,500 less than the national figure, but the number of individuals below poverty is more than five percentage points above the national statistic.

Even those who are making enough to be considered above poverty will have to make choices about how to use their resources, said Virginia Bryant, director of community relations and research development for Tompkins Community Action (TCA).

The private, non-profit organization calculated that after paying for food and housing for a year, a family living in Tompkins County and earning a gross income of $20,650 will have $1,622.29 in disposable income for transportation, health care and child care.

TCA also estimated health care for a family of four costs about $5,000 a year, transportation costs about $4,000 and child care costs about $7,000. These costs put a family almost $15,000 over budget – but still not poor, according to national standards.

“Housing, transportation and child care are probably the three greatest obstacles for people in poverty,” Bryant said.

She said residents of Tompkins County have options when they are seeking help or housing. TCA operates five permanent housing programs, including a housing voucher program run through the Tompkins County Department of Social Services (DSS), which Bryant called one of the most progressive departments in the state.

“The county is organization-rich,” she said. “Everyone who comes here says that whether they are in need of services or not.”

While TCA programs focus on permanent housing, the Red Cross offers immediate solutions and then works with occupants to move them into a permanent situation.

Al, a Manhattan native who has been in Ithaca for about 14 days and lived in the shelter for 11 of them, said he has never been to a place where others were so willing to help. He said he loves the shelter, but getting out is his only goal.

“I need help this month,” he said. “But next month, I don’t want to know you.”

For years, Al lived and worked in New York City, but bad luck in his contracting business left him out of work and fighting an expensive lawsuit. He said he was homeless by the following month when he couldn’t pay his rent.

“I’ve worked and made money my whole life,” he said. “I never imagined I would be living from shelter to shelter.”

After experiencing shelters in the city, which he said are large rooms filled with chairs and cots, Al called the Red Cross shelter in Ithaca the “Taj Mahal” of shelters.

“You go to a shelter in New York City and you get a chair and if you’re lucky a blanket,” he said. “[This is] a real house. It makes you feel at home.”

John Ward, director of homeless services for the Red Cross, said the program includes the emergency shelter downtown, case management services and a food pantry. The Red Cross also operates the Friendship Center, which offers daily services like free lunches and a place to receive mail and phone calls.

Ward said the 13-bed shelter is the only form of emergency housing in the entire county, and they often have to send people to a nearby motel when the shelter reaches its capacity.

When someone seeking a place to stay is deferred to the motel, or chooses to go to the motel rather than the shelter, they have to leave premises between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. every day.

Lanscown lived at the motel for two weeks before the Red Cross could provide rooms at the shelter for him and his daughter. He said the restrictions weren’t a problem for him because he sent Katie to live with his mother in Slatersville, and he worked during the day.

Ward said admittance into the shelter comes with regulations. A shelter manager is always on site to enforce regulations but also provides participants with the services and resources they need to find permanent housing and employment.

Ward said the lack of available beds in the county is a problem, especially after the organization provided 13,439 bednights last year. One bednight is one person who occupies a bed in the shelter or motel for one night.

Ward said the Red Cross is in the process of renovating the Friendship Center to make a second shelter. The new space will add 18 beds, bringing the total number of available beds in the county to 31.

“People in motels think they are motel guests and not shelter clients and we need them to think like they are shelter clients,” he said. “We need them feeling the urgency every morning that it’s a short term shelter. You can’t live here. Every day you need to be looking at a way to get out of here.”

Just as Al was surprised to realize the cruelties of life in poverty, so was Ithaca College senior Meredith Titterington when she visited the Community for Creative Non-Violence, the largest homeless shelter in Washington, D.C., in 2006.

Titterington volunteered at the shelter as a part of Alternative Spring Break, a community service program at the college. As a Trumansburg resident, Titterington said she has always known about places like the Jungle, an encampment for the homeless and near-homeless in Ithaca’s West End, but she had never had to see it with her own eyes.

“I knew that people weren’t always rich,” she said. “But I never had to see people struggle on a day to day basis to make sure they had a place to sleep at night.”

Gossa Tsegaye, assistant professor of television-radio at the college, will screen his documentary “The Jungle’s Edge,” at 7 p.m. today in Park Auditorium. The film is about the residents of the Jungle – many of which claim to be homeless by choice.

Ward said the people of the Jungle have places to go if they wanted to be housed.

“The people that stay there used to have apartments or still have apartments,” he said. “They just don’t want to stay in,” he said.

Sandy Ferrara, advocacy coordinator for Loaves and Fishes, an organization in Ithaca that provides free meals for the community, said the key to solving the poverty issue in Tompkins County is action.

“We can talk about it until we’re blue in the face,” she said. “But until some changes are made, people are going to be sleeping out in the street.”

Ferrara has worked with the guests at Loaves and Fishes for 10 years and said the community lacks a shelter with fewer regulations than the Red Cross. She said a shelter should be open to everyone who needs a place to stay, even if they can’t comply with all the criteria to enter a program.

“The only criteria should be if they need a place to stay,” she said. “That’s it.”

Al ended up in Ithaca, a place he’d never heard of, by coincidence. He said he was driving to upstate New York with a friend when there was an altercation and Al asked to be left at the nearest exit – which happened to be for Ithaca.

After less than two weeks in the shelter, Al was cooking dinners for the other guests and perusing the food pantry in the basement. He said he never thought he would find a place that provided so much.

“Can you believe this?” he asked as he opened each of the four refrigerators.

Al said he is hoping to leave the shelter by the suggested 14-day period. He said he spends his days apartment chasing and making plans to rebuild his business.

“I’m staying in Ithaca,” he said.