Jungle residents left in limbo as City of Ithaca decides their fate

Tom Purcell, a resident of Section One of the Jungle, stands by his tent Sept. 2. (KEVIN CAMPBELL)

Walk along Route 13 south, right beside the train tracks until the railroad bridge crosses the creek by Agway. Cross the bridge. Balance on the steel tracks, hop from one railroad tie to the next. Hang a left.

Snake through one of the beaten paths lined with leftover cardboard from a Keystone Ice case and broken bottles.

Tents loom behind bushes. Carpet remnants blanket the ground. Several men are perched on the cement retention wall by the creek, rolling cigarettes into perfect cylinders. One man sprinkles some Doritos on the ground for a duck. On the pockmarked cement beside Gary Rohey rests a bowl full of apples, much like the fruit bowls that sometimes sit on kitchen countertops. He offers one to anyone who passes by.

“Welcome to the Jungle,” reads a sign nailed to a tree trunk. “All friends are welcome, whores and bums are not. Thieves will pay the price.”

The Jungle, home to about 50 homeless men and women living in tents, is a “problem” the City of Ithaca has been trying to solve for the last two years. It’s where the “misfits” of Ithaca’s homeless population collect — those who aren’t willing to give up Meow Meow the Jungle Cat, aren’t ready to face their alcoholism or don’t meet the requirements for admittance to Ithaca shelters. They don’t have anywhere else to go, and the city doesn’t know where to put them.

Yesterday, city officials held a private meeting to discuss its plan for the Jungle’s future. Dan Hoffman, City of Ithaca attorney, declined to share the outcome of the meeting.

The City of Ithaca gave the American Red Cross of Tompkins County a “draft eviction notice” in August calling for residents living in Sectors Two and Three of the Jungle, which rest on city-owned land, to either pack up by Sept. 15 or be arrested for trespassing. Sector One of the Jungle was not included in the eviction notice because it rests on land owned by Norfolk Southern Corp. railroad. Mayor Carolyn Peterson said the city plans to address Sector One after Sectors Two and Three have been evicted.

It looked like a promise of eviction, but atthe Homeless and Housing Task Force meeting Aug. 30, Peterson announced the city had decided to remove the Sept. 15 deadline from the notice. The date came, and no one had been evicted.

Hoffman said complaints from local businesses, expansion of the Jungle and a series of health and safety liabilities brought the city to the doors of social service agencies about two and a half years ago, in search of suggestions on how to relocate the residents.

“The city has been trying to get viable suggestions for years,” Hoffman said at the meeting. “The city is very open to hearing ideas that people have.”

But while willing to hear plans, the city cannot help fund the solution it calls for, he said.

“The city is cutting back all of its departments right now,” Hoffman said. “We’re not in a position to take on new services, so somebody needs to be creative and take responsibility.”

In the absence of a “creative solution,” Hoffman said, the city would have to enforce city regulations and evict the people who live in the Jungle. The city isn’t sure when that day will come. Hoffman said the decision to remove the Sept. 15 date on the draft eviction notice was made to give the mayor more time to consult with social service agencies.

NOT IN MY BACKYARD

Peterson said three separate businesses have approached her with complaints about the Jungle, but she would not disclose what the complaints were or the names of the businesses. Though Andy Boerman, owner of the Agway near the Jungle, said he’s never filed a complaint, he has found residents relieving themselves on stacks of cement pallets stored near the railroad tracks.

Walking through the Jungle, it’s evident where health and safety regulations are being violated. Every so often, a charred pit of garbage marks the end of one camp and the beginning of another. There’s no running water, just a jug here and there. There are no bathrooms, just tree trunks and the Mobil gas station down the street. Huts and tents pepper the woods, which are not zoned for residents or camping. Most of the time, residents have a 24-ounce can of beer in their hand — a cigarette in the other.

Memorials to those who have died in the Jungle are scattered around the campsites underscoring the problems of living under these conditions. Former Jungle resident Dan Lynch’s favorite boots, a miniature bottle of Smirnoff and a photograph decorate the tree where he hanged himself July 30. A photo of George Bowlsby is nailed to a cross by the inlet he fell into. Residents used to call him “George of the Jungle.”

Penny Shaffer, who has been in and out of the Jungle for 15 years, said she gets out of the cold at her friend Lorraine Tunnicliffe’s apartment in the winter. In the warmer months, her slight frame shrinks into the same shaded lawn chair, right by the tent where she spends her nights.

“If you’re living down here, you’ve got to be a survivor because not everyone can live under these conditions,” Shaffer said. “Emotionally. Health wise. And other things you can’t even think of.”

At the Homeless and Housing Task Force meeting, Peterson read from a list of crime and emergency incidents in the Jungle.

“What really worries me as a compassionate person, is where I see things such as breathing problems, convulsions, chest pain, medical, sick person, unconscious, chest pain, psychiatric,” she said. “That’s what worries me. That people there are not getting immediate help.”

But these concerns, and the recent feeling that the city must intervene for the good of the Jungle’s residents, come from a city that until recently had not addressed these problems for more than 50 years. Up until spring 2009, when the City of Ithaca Building Department called attention to the zoning and health code violations in the Jungle, health and safety concerns in The Jungle were overlooked.

“I don’t know that anybody was comfortable with it, but apparently nobody was willing to take action,” Hoffman said.

In September 2009, the city sent a letter to the railroad asking them to push residents off the property or be fined $1,000 per day.  When the railroad company said it planned to use its private security forces, the city changed its mind about enforcing the regulations.

Peterson said she did not like the railroad’s approach.

“There would have been no warnings,” Peterson said. “It wasn’t compassionate. It was a use of techniques we wouldn’t support in this city.”

She said she isn’t comfortable with the ways local social service agencies have dealt with Jungle residents.

ISLAND OF MISFITS

At the task force meeting, several agencies admitted to sending clients back to the Jungle with a sleeping bag and a tent after attempts to relocate them failed.

Darrell Saunders said this is how he ended up in the Jungle — by referral. After showing up at the Red Cross emergency shelter, he said, personnel told him he must be evaluated by the Department of Social Services before being admitted. In the meantime, he could stay in the Jungle. He hasn’t left since.

According to the Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance administrative directive 96 ADM-20, those applying for Temporary Housing Assistance must meet a series of verification requirements before being considered eligible for assistance. They must participate in budget counseling, drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs or mental health evaluations, for example.

Deana Bodner, program development specialist for the Tompkins County Department of Social Services, said just because a client is found ineligible for emergency assistance, it does not necessarily mean he or she will end up in the Jungle. She said evaluation works on a case-by-case basis.

“There’s a level of complexity in terms of assessment a lot of times people don’t understand,” she said.

Still sitting next to the creek with a beer in his hand, Rohey said the Jungle residents are either unwilling or physically incapable of meeting these requirements, especially in respect to alcohol.

“We already know we’re drunks,” he said. “We’re not going to jump through their hoops. They want people to stop drinking. If some of these guys stopped drinking, they’d die.”

Some Jungle residents, like Tom Purcell, simply aren’t interested in shelter life. He enjoys the peace and quiet of living outside and the freedom and security that comes with having his own home base. He follows his own rules and makes his own money as a dishwasher at the State Diner, but said he still can’t afford an apartment downtown.

Rohey points to his nose, which curves a little bit to his left, when he talks about the time he spent in a homeless shelter upstate.

“There’s people staying there who will break your nose if you don’t give them a cigarette,” he said.

UNCERTAIN FUTURE

A 2011 California Law Review titled “Tent Cities: An Interim Solution to Homelessness and Affordable Housing Shortages in the United States,” discusses the positive and negative qualities of tent cities, for both its residents and the surrounding communities.

According to the study, residents of tent cities often benefit from a sense of autonomy, privacy and security. But liability issues, health concerns and ethical considerations often pervade the discussion about tent cities — a topic that has entered the public sphere more frequently since the Great Recession.

Other cities have also struggled to address tent communities in a way that doesn’t empty city coffers.

In Sacramento, Calif., a tent community was dismantled by the city government. Dignity Village in Portland, Ore., became its own nonprofit entity. Others governments merely revised city ordinances to allow tent encampments to exist.

Purcell attended the task force meeting to see what the city might have in store for the Jungle, but he left without an answer. Putting a portable toilet in the Jungle, paving an access road and hiring a city liaison to tend to Jungle affairs were some solutions offered up by members of the community. Some advocated for a new, more permissive, homeless shelter.

Ithaca resident Chris Larkin said the issue boils down to Jungle residents’ privacy rights and the city’s responsibility to respect them.

“Work with what’s there and accept that the people there aren’t going to go away just because you shut the Jungle down,” Larkin said. “Don’t just isolate it, put it in a corner and try to make it go away.”

Meanwhile, residents of the Jungle are still waiting, not giving the city’s next move much thought. Some have dismissed the city’s draft eviction notice as an idle threat.

As far as the city’s “compassionate” but unfunded ideas for the Jungle’s future — residents like Rohey have their doubts.

“If you were to propose a bird sanctuary to the city, the mayor would be jumping up and down and getting a little feather in her cap,” Rohey said. “Well, this is a people sanctuary.”

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