Amici House — a permanent housing option for homeless people between the ages of 18 and 25 — opened to the Tompkins County homeless population on Feb. 15 and already has 35 residents for its 23 rooms.
The building is run by Tompkins Community Action, an organization whose mission is to “sustain and improve economic opportunity and social justice for families and individuals impacted directly or indirectly by poverty,” according to the organization’s website.
The initial process of planning Amici House began about five years ago, TCAction executive director Lee Dillon estimated. However, the project was officially proposed to the Tompkins County Legislature in June 2016 and approved by the Planning and Development Board in January 2017.
Dillon said the the first few weeks of occupancy have been going “great” and that many of the residents already know each other “because they’ve all been on the streets together.”
Though Dillon did not know the exact number of residents currently living in Amici House, she said that all four three-person rooms and 19 two-person rooms are occupied and that the maximum capacity would be 50 residents if all the rooms were full, though some are not.
TCAction helps residents with goal-planning, education, employment and childcare while they live in Amici House. The adjacent childcare center — built as part of the same project — will run the Head Start program, a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services initiative dedicated to supporting low-income families.
“We felt that young people will have children and, considering their homelessness, probably don’t have a lot of support from their family and raising their children,” Dillon said. “So we felt that [Head Start] would be very advantageous for the young people at Amici House.”
Through the Head Start program, TCAction provides health screenings, immunizations, education about children’s development and childcare for low-income families. The childcare center, which opened on Sept. 5, is open to the public, though residents of Amici House have priority for open spots, Dillon said.
Several Cornell students and professors have also been involved with TCAction. Jane Powers Ph.D. ’85 and a group of undergraduate students conduct the Independent Living Survey every four years in order to collect data about the homeless youth in Ithaca.
Powers’ team collaborates with The Learning Web, an Ithaca organization focused on youth education, to “gather data to look at the extent of the homeless population in Ithaca,” she said.
The team working on the ILS trains homeless youth to be researchers in the study and to survey the experiences of their peers — other homeless youth in Ithaca. Powers believes this method is a more accurate way of recording youth homelessness than counting the number of people at shelters or other services.
“Methods to count the homeless often underestimate the youth population because they use this point-in-time count methodology,” she said. “Youth are often not connected to services which are designed to serve them because they don’t trust them.”
Dillon said the ILS illustrated the “community need” for homeless youth housing and was instrumental in providing the data needed to gain support for the $8.5 million project, which received most of its funding from New York State grants.
“My fundraising is grant writing. I used all [Powers’] data to get the money to build this … And the funder said ‘This is some of the best demonstrated needs section that I’ve ever seen’ so I have to give Jane and her group credit … for their good work on this,” Dillon said.
The ILS is one part of the Continuum of Care, a coalition of organizations in the area that are dedicated to ending homelessness in Tompkins County.
The CoC uses the Coordinated Assessment system that compiles a list of Tompkins County’s homeless population, which different organizations use to provide support. TCAction used this list to fill vacancies in Amici House and their other supportive housing programs.
“The idea is to serve the most vulnerable household first … I think we could probably fill another building like this instantly, which is sort of sad, but true,” Dillon said.
Amici House provides permanent housing, but Dillon said she estimates residents will move on after about 18 to 24 months.
“The idea is to get on your feet, get healthy, go to school, get a job, get on with your life now that you’ve got some housing. We believe housing is essential for anybody to move forward in their lives,” she said.
TCAction is working on building an emergency shelter for young homeless people in Ithaca, who often do not go to the existing emergency shelters, according to both Powers and Dillon.
“Most young people do not want to go to shelters for a whole variety of reasons. It’s rules, filth, lack of privacy, creepy people, bunk beds on top of each other, things get stolen,” Powers said.
TCAction is working on this new project with Powers and Prof. Gary Evans, design and environmental analysis, and a group of his undergraduate students.
For this project, Powers will conduct focus groups and interviews with homeless youths in Ithaca to “get their ideas on what would be desirable features for … someplace they would go,” she said. Evans and his students will then design the shelter based on that data.
Dillon said she hopes that construction for this space — which is connected to Amici House — will begin in the fall, and take about six months to complete.