The difficult situation faced by homeless and those who want to help
By Andy Casler
For more than three generations Ithaca has been home to a community shrouded in stereotype. In The Jungle, Ithaca’s destitute find a canvass roof above their heads and shelter from the streets. Located in the woods behind Agway, it’s often portrayed as a wildly unsafe subculture, but in reality, it’s a community that strives to look after its own. It’s a place where justice is as raw as the residents see fit and fights often resolvedisputes.
I made my first visit to The Jungle on a snowy November morning. Still within earshot of the city traffic, I found a trail that looked like a good way into the dwellings that comprise The Jungle. The path was narrow, and the first tents that I passed were unoccupied. I made sure to pass cautiously through the residents’ space. I stopped to shout out an unsure “Hello!” and received a “Woof!” in reply. The bark came from a tent with a five-tipped star painted on the front; its entrance was littered with beer cans. I asked if anyone inside would like to give an interview and, without hesitation, a man offered me a seat in the tent. Inside were four men, including the tent’s owner who went by the name Dorito. As we talked, smoke from the cigarette in his hand wafted into the air. I asked him why he came to The Jungle: “Life,” he said. “Can’t afford rent.”
Dorito’s dilemma is not an exceptional case. According to Pete Meyers, the co-founder of The Tompkins County Workers Center (TCWC), roughly 30 percent of people in Tompkins County are making less than living wage and unable to afford the cost of housing in Ithaca. The living wage for a single individual in Ithaca is $9.83 per hour — $11.18 if you don’t have health insurance. “It is almost unaffordable for people to live in Ithaca; it takes two incomes to have a pretty decent one-bedroom apartment,” said John Ward, the director of Homeless Services for Tompkins County Red Cross.
A resident of The Jungle named Brian, nicknamed Tattoo, said he came to Ithaca looking for work, but when he got here he couldn’t find any. “I basically just got stuck here, and was living with friends here and there, and next thing I knew I was out on the street. [I] Found out about [The Jungle] and then I came down here,” he said.
I studied the inside of Dorito’s tent as we talked. The tent is weathered. There’s a cluttered table in one corner, next to his bed. Dorito told me his favorite thing about The Jungle is “the people,” although they sometimes “go through [their] little riffs and raffs.” A man named David sat directly across from me. He had a black eye. David, a self described part-timer of The Jungle, told me that his least favorite thing about The Jungle “is the violence that happens sometimes down here.” He pointed to his black eye and told me that the violent and dishonest are not welcome. “We’re not here to kill each other. We’re here to help each other,” David said. All three men in the tent reinforced this idea. They made it clear that when you’re in The Jungle, kindness governs, violence polices and alcoholism lives.
Another man in the tent, A-Sun, said his least favorite thing about The Jungle is that the Red Cross sends people who can’t obey the shelter’s no-substance policy there. “Yeah, this ain’t a shelter. You know it happened a lot this summer, and that’s one of my dislikes about it,” A-Sun said.
Recent focus reports for The Department of Homeless Services show a negative slope for the number of people spending nights in Tompkins County shelters since 2005. But every year about six to eight people end up living in The Jungle because their addictions make them unemployable, and would therefore need to live in the shelter indefinitely. Meyers commented on the Red Cross deferring needy people to The Jungle, he described it as “fucked up.”
As the Red Cross’ John Ward noted, “There is a need for a place that does not have quite the requirements that our program does, that doesn’t have quite the structure that our program has.” The Jungle will continue to provide refuge for Ithaca’s destitute. And as the Red Cross continues to redirect their ineligible inquirers to The Jungle, its residents will remain agitated. As Dortio said, “We try not to attract a lot of people down here.”
Andy Casler is a sophomore journalism major. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.