By Jamie Swinnerton
Ithaca and Tompkins County are no strangers to the issue of homelessness, but a new local group has decided to take this issue on by helping those in the area already working to address homelessness. Ithaca Homeless Crisis isn’t a non-profit, it doesn’t have a building or an address, but it does have a handful of people, a lot of passion, and the power of social media. Chris Biehn, currently a student at Ithaca College and one of the founders and organizers of Ithaca Homeless Crisis, said the group’s mission is to focus the resources and money available in the area into direct action.
“We want to educate people,” Biehn said. “We want to expose truth. We want to share perspective. We want to get people to know the core behind the issues, and not just these misconceptions and assumptions.”
Education, fundraising and mobilizing are the three main pillars of what Ithaca Homeless Crisis wants to do, Biehn said. The group is meant to be a facilitator. Through a community Facebook group started by Ithaca Homeless Crisis, members can get involved directly by donating necessary resources, volunteering time and help, and share information about the homeless crisis in the area. A crisis that has reached a peak.
Homeless deaths in the area are at an all-time high, reaching 14 in the last year alone. It’s a tragedy that has fueled the urgency and passion that Biehn emotes when talking about the subject of homelessness.
Biehn and the Ithaca Homeless Crisis group has already made a mark in the area. On Sunday, Jan. 28, through a fundraising effort at CoreLife Eatery in Ithaca the group raised $1,284 to be split evenly between two Tompkins County organizations that are working to help the homeless: the Ithaca Rescue Mission, and Second Wind Cottages in Newfield.
Since 2013, Carmen Guidi has been building the cottages of Second Wind Cottages with the help of volunteers and donations. He sees it as his mission as a Christian to help those in need. Guidi got to know several members of The Jungle, a homeless community in Ithaca when he began volunteering with the Ithaca Rescue Mission. But when one of his friends still living in The Jungle committed suicide he knew he wanted to take more direct action. At Second Wind, homeless men are given a place to live and connected to whatever services they might need for their health, job hunting or otherwise. But now, Guidi wants others to take more direct action too. Especially those who call themselves Christians.
“The church needs to wake up,” Guidi said. “People have this misconception that ‘I’m going to go to church and be good for God and go on a Sunday morning and not do anything else.’ That’s not at all what it is.”
The crowd that filled CoreLife eatery on that Sunday morning, coming together for a cause, that’s what church is, Guidi said. This is a message that he said he tries to drive home whenever he is asked to speak to a group of people. He himself used to be a “pew-warmer,” but that’s not how he lives his faith anymore.
“Complacency shouldn’t be an option,” Biehn said in agreement.
The CoreLife event was a complete success. Over 175 people showed up and Biehn said the group maxed out the number of tickets it was allowed to sell. Some generous individuals even donated tickets, allowing some individuals from Second Wind Cottages and the Ithaca Rescue Mission to eat for free.
Money from the event going to the Ithaca Rescue Mission will go toward more emergency shelter beds and funding for the food pantry. Guidi said the money going to Second Wind will be used to buy food, water, and other supplies that will be distributed in The Jungle as part of an outreach program.
Biehn met Guidi several years ago under very similar circumstances. The Protestant community on the Ithaca College campus, called Love Does, that Biehn is a part of decided that their mission trip would be to its own backyard. The group volunteered with Second Wind Cottages as part of the mission.
“I was mesmerized by the concept and I was really intrigued and I also really wanted to become invested in the idea of helping the homeless,” Biehn said.
After that trip, Biehn said he looked to Guidi as a role model of how he should live his life and his faith. Part of the mission trip took the volunteers to The Jungle to meet the people experiencing homelessness there.
“I remember thinking something along the lines of almost disbelief that people in my privileged, college community lived this way and just very uncomfortable with the fact that it’s not known,” Biehn said.
After that trip, Biehn and several others created the Ithaca Homeless Crisis campaign created a PSA, with the help of some Park Scholars, to highlight what’s going on. The video included interviews with Guidi, Mike Foster, program manager at the Ithaca Rescue Mission, and Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick.
Now, Ithaca Homeless Crisis has a core group of 15 individuals that Biehn said have been reaching out to the homeless community and working with the Rescue Mission and Second Wind for some time. They mostly operate through a Facebook page and community group to organize events and coordinate outreach efforts. The CoreLife event was just the first of the group’s outreach efforts.
“We’d love to get people to be more engaged with transportation,” Biehn said of possible future efforts. “So, a lot of our homeless friends either can’t afford bus passes all the time, or the bus routes don’t always get them where they need to go, or they need to get to work, or this, that, or the other thing.”
The group wants to find more long-term efforts, Biehn said, and will be coordinating with local agencies and municipalities soon. But Biehn feels really positive about the change that Ithaca Homeless Crisis can bring. He said the group had no idea what to expect at the CoreLife event, but the high turnout, engagement, and follow-up for future action was positive.
“Word is getting out about the crisis,” Biehn said. “Word is getting out about these issues and people are starting to take notice. We can’t promise that taking notice will immediately lead to change. But being aware is a lot better than being in the dark.”
The Ithaca Homeless Crisis group plans on holding more fundraisers in the future, but community members looking for ways to help right now can contact the group through their Facebook community group, Ithaca Homeless Crisis Community Group.