Ithaca mayor declares homeless community in violation of city code
Some may consider the homeless community located behind the Rt. 13 shopping centers, known to most Ithaca residents as “The Jungle,” as no more than a trash dump for the poor, but, to its residents, it is home. It is a place where they can dwell without the rules and regulations of a homeless shelter. During the summer, around 20-25 individuals occupy the Jungle; about six people decide to tough it out through the winter.
Residents are currently facing a forced eviction, which they have fought for years and now continue to fight against.
Gossa Tsegaye, Assistant Professor of TV-R at Ithaca College, has been tracking the plight of the Jungle residents for several years. In Sept. 2007, he debuted his documentary about the Jungle and its residents, highlighting their day-to-day lives.
“[I was able to meet] those people and see how generous they were with their time and how articulate they were with their [thoughts],” Tsegaye said. “Regardless of their living condition, at the end of the day, the humanity was shining through.”
Although the Jungle residents and many of their allies made a public outcry against the forced eviction, City Attorney Daniel Hoffman said that the eviction is seen as beneficial for the residents to help them better their lives.
“Part of the mayor’s concern about this situation is her belief that it is not safe or appropriate for the people who use the Jungle,” he said.
In the past few months, Ithaca residents have complained about open fires, fights and burning of materials like plastic in the Jungle community. Hoffman said that Jungle residents have violated many laws within the political code of the city of Ithaca.
“Any living space needs a building permit from the City Building Department,” Hoffman said. “They are apparently living or staying in a situation where there are no sanitary facilities: there are no toilets or supply of drinkable water. They have also created structures that extended into the waterways, and that requires a permit. They don’t have a permit.”
A combination of these violations, in part, led to the mayor’s eviction order.
Many residents of the Jungle fall victim to drug abuse, alcohol abuse, and mental health illnesses. This adds to the concern of Ithaca residents and representatives. Tsegaye disagrees with the concerns, noting that these issues often indicate underlying, broader problems.
“The thing that we have to understand is that people do not use drugs, or sell drugs, because they’re hopeful about the future,” he said, explaining that drugs are common coping mechanisms for people in this situation. “There is a burning issue, an issue right now within themselves.”
The Friendship Center at the Tompkins County Red Cross Center hopes to provide some help as the Jungle residents move on. The center has provided bagged lunches and showers to residents. John Ward, director of homeless services at the Friendship Center of the American Red Cross, said that the Red Cross is there for help and support, not to fight the eviction.
“The Red Cross is neutral … we understand both sides of the issue. The city has a responsibility for ensuring that its local laws and ordinances are being upheld, and we certainly agree with that. We agree to try to assist the city with assisting the folks in the Jungle either to relocate from there or come into our Emergency Shelter program, whereby we could find them permanent housing,” he said.
As of now, there is no set date for the Jungle residents’ eviction, but Hoffman predicts there will be one soon.
According to Ward, there are three Jungle encampments dispersed throughout
Ithaca. They are referred to as the “Original Jungle,”or “Jungle I,” “Jungle II,” and
“Jungle III.” The Original Jungle, is the primary sight that is co-owned by the city of
Ithaca and Norfolk southern railroad. Jungle II is near Cherry Street and Industrial
Park. Jungle III is also further down Norfolk Southern Railroad.
Ward said that the forced eviction will only apply to the two southwest areas of the
Jungle, around the area of Route 13.
“It’s only three individuals that we know of that it actually would affect at this time,”
Ward said. “There may be about 12 other individuals in the primary Jungle, which
is Jungle I, and this does not pertain to them, although it may affect them.”
If the city does decide to move forward with the developments and construction of
access roads, Ward said that trees and bushes would have to be cut down at the
primary Jungle, making Jungle I more visible to outsiders.
“We feel that the attraction of people living there in the first place is because it’s
not visible, and if it becomes more visible, we feel [like] they’re not going to want
to stay there anyway,” Ward said.
Tsegaye said that evicting these people from their home is not going to solve the greater issue at hand.
“The city is determined to remove these people physically and create a barrier for them not to occupy the space again,” he said. “But are we really resolving the issue, [or] are we just putting a Band-Aid on it?”
Candace King is a freshman journalism major who wants to live in a tree house. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.