How residents of The Jungle create their own community
It’s been a source of recent controversy for the city of Ithaca: the question of what to do with The Jungle, the name for the place where the city’s homeless and not-so-homeless have found sanctuary for the past 70 years.
If you walk along the rusted railroad ties, you can see the snatches of color from the Jungle residents’ tents among the barren trees. A small dog is tied to the side of a wooden doghouse with a chain, and smoke rises in the air from a small fire pit by the side of the river.
Rick Sherman has been living in and out of The Jungle for the past five years. He says he has a house but that he prefers the solitude and the peace that the Jungle provides for its residents. He refers to his tent as his “man cave” — the place he likes to go to get away from the world.
Sherman is currently one of the few remaining residents of The Jungle, most of whom have cleared out for the winter season but will be back in the spring.
Sherman said he spends his time going over to the Friendship Center to get the day-old bread, which he feeds to the ducks that he refers to as his “children” in the river.
He lives in his tent with his cat Slinkers and Slinkers’ kitten, September, who Sherman named in memory of his mother, who died this past September.
Sherman said he is fond of gospel music, pulling out a Chip Ingrim CD as he talked about his favorite music genres. He also listens to country music and various selections of rock n’ roll. Sometimes he even calls in the local radio station on his cell phone to make a song request. Others in The Jungle blast classic 80s hair bands from their respective radios and their tents.
Several of the Jungle citizens have prepaid cellphones that they use to keep in contact with their families and the world outside of The Jungle.
One resident, Dee, said she technically has a home but prefers to live in The Jungle because she feels safer here than in her home.
“I live in a crack house,” Dee said. “I’d rather be here than there.”
Cleveland Meyers came to The Jungle more reluctantly than some of the community’s other inhabitants — after he had been evicted from his home. He stressed that he was homeless and that while he appreciated the help and support from his Jungle family, he is looking forward to moving into the new apartment he found.
Dan* said he lives in The Jungle by choice because the rent in Ithaca is too high.
“After paying the rent and buying a couple beers and packs of cigarettes, there’s nothing left,” Dan said.
“The rent is too high, and when you find a place, it’s nowhere, and if you don’t drive or can’t drive, you have to depend on the bus schedule,” Meyers said.
He went on to voice his grievances about the affordable housing being too isolated and how frustrating it is to have to depend on the busses to get you where you need to be.
The Jungle residents are not completely lacking when it comes to finances; several of them have jobs, and they all find a way to legally make money.
Sherman makes his living through “cleaning up” The Jungle and through his “fishing trips” in the river. He has found old bikes, propane containers and other odds and ends, as well as the recyclables he collects and returns everyday to make his living.
“See that pile over there? Twenty dollars! And that one over there? Thirty dollars! It’s everywhere — you just have to look for it,” Sherman said as he pointed to multiple piles of collected recyclables.
Sherman refuses to take handouts from people when they come with gifts or charity from one of the local churches.
“I have to work for it. I don’t want handouts,” Sherman said.
They live off of the land, but they do what they can to respect it; they keep the area clean, and even though they could chop down trees in the area, they choose not to because they want to preserve the natural surroundings.
Many of the Jungle members have their tents fitted with propane heaters to keep themselves warm during the colder seasons.
Living in The Jungle is all about learning how to get by and how to survive with what you can, although the residents do stress the importance of socks and long johns if you decide to try out the Jungle life.
Meyers said he fell into a depressed state when he first came to The Jungle after being evicted from his home.
“It’s hard,” Meyers said. “All of my things were put in storage. I came here with nothing.”
Meyers said when he came to The Jungle he didn’t want to be there and that he felt trapped.
Dan agreed with Meyers and said to live in The Jungle, you need to have an escape. Dan said his job provides him with that escape; it prevents him from feeling too isolated from the rest of society. However, he said not everyone living in The Jungle is depressed.
“I know there’s hope down here,” Dan said.
The Jungle community has its own methods of therapy. Meyers said that the best way to deal with the depression is to talk about what you’re feeling with others in the Jungle family.
“We try to encourage people to talk about their problems,” Meyers said.
Meyers described his depression as overwhelming, attributing his healthier mental state to his friends in The Jungle and his excitement about moving to a new home.
Depression is a problem that many of the Jungle residents deal with. Several residents have turned to suicide.
“We’ve lost a lot of family down here,” Dan said.
The depression in The Jungle is partially caused by the isolation that many residents feel from the rest of the world, from the living conditions and partially from their addictions.
While the residents of The Jungle work to keep the area clean, they also try to keep the people clean by prohibiting people with substance abuse addictions from The Jungle.
“No needles down here,” Dan said.
Alcohol and cigarettes are the only substances that the residents allow to be part of Jungle life. But that isn’t to say that the Jungle community is without its addictions.
“I’ll be honest with you,” Dan said. “I’m an alcoholic.”
Other residents said they turned there originally because their alcoholic status prevented them from being accepted into a homeless shelter.
The Jungle might not have televisions, but it certainly does have a radio connection, which serves as one of the primary news sources for the community members. They joked about the GOP candidates, discussing which ones they weren’t fond of (like Mitt Romney), while they praised President Obama. Meyers jumped to defend Obama from the Republican critiques of Obama’s first term.
“Leave him alone,” Meyers said. “He’s doing all right.”
When asked about local politics, Sherman said he was fond of Svante Myrick and had been opposed to the previous mayor.
“I hope people fill the potholes and the city drain and leave us alone,” Sherman said.
The residents admit that they don’t have the fondest views of society because of how they feel society views them.
“We’re not part of their system … we don’t like to be judged,” Meyers said. “We are who we are.”
As the society discussion continues, the expressions on the Jungle dwellers’ faces falter as they talk about how they think society sees them. They said they believe that society doesn’t view them in a positive light because they live a very different lifestyle from it.
“It’s a different life; you can enjoy it or hate it,” Dan said.
The Jungle citizens joked about what their utopias were: There was a general consensus on a warm climate and a few votes for the Mediterranean (even the luxurious Ritz hotel), but some of the residents showed how much they truly loved living in The Jungle through their answers.
Dan waited for the others to quiet down about the Mediterranean before he said what his true utopia was. He described a two-story log cabin in the woods and said that it would have indoor plumbing, and that he would be isolated in the woods so he could be surrounded by nature.
Other residents agreed with Dan’s paradise. All of them praised him for thinking about indoor plumbing, an amenity the Jungle residents don’t have the luxury of in their tents. For their hygienic needs, such as showering, they depend on the Friendship Center, a local shelter, or the kindness of friends willing to extend the hospitality of their bathrooms.
Sherman said he keeps coming back to The Jungle even though he has a home and a family because he likes the natural atmosphere of it.
“Every morning, I love waking up to the squirrels chuckling at me, and I love cleaning here everyday,” Sherman said. “I claim The Jungle everyday. It’s not fun down here, but it’s not bad.”
(* Some names have been changed at the request of the source.)
TinaMarie Craven is a freshman journalism and politics double major who loves playing with squirrels. Email her at [email protected]