Just a stone's throw from the city's West End and big box stores, Ithaca's small tent city waits in purgatory. For some 50 residents of the Jungle, a campsite community that for at least half a century has been a home to those otherwise considered homeless, this winter has become even more uncertain.
The Jungle - a three-part campsite community located along the railroad tracks heading south through town - is again the topic of discussion among the City of Ithaca's elected officials and humanitarian leaders, as they decide how and whether to close it down, for concerns of the safety, sanitation and health of its residents.
It's a dilemma that Martha Robertson, chair of the Tompkins County Legislature, encapsulated best a recent meeting to held discuss how best to go about clearing the Jungle. No matter what shelters and amenities are offered to people, there will always be those who want no other home.
"I don't think we're ever going to have no one who wants to live outside," Robertson said. "Harm reduction is what we need to do, but we can't follow a timetable on this. I hope we have the courage to have patience."
On a sunny, late summer day, Jungle resident Mike Morrell follows those tracks home. It's a five-minute walk past the main Jungle to where he lives, first across the railroad tracks beside Agway and then further along, into what was once the Cherry Street Park, now known more commonly as the Jungle II. The land Morrell's camp occupies is targeted for the city's first phase of eviction, which Mayor Carolyn Peterson predicted could be sometime in the fall.
That Wednesday morning, the Jungle sites were mostly quiet and empty. Some residents had gone to wash up and drink coffee at the Red Cross Friendship Center, and others were eating at Loaves and Fishes or at work, Morrell said. The only sound nearby was noise from the highway and a Jungle resident's barking dogs.
To city officials, the Jungle is a problem area.
Peterson said they want to see it shut down because of ongoing problems: open fires, burning of toxic materials, police and fire department calls, and issues of sanitation. She said she was also concerned about rumors that some local human service agencies could be referring clients to the Jungle as a place to go.
"It's a very complicated issue, and it's one we want to approach in a way that's as respectful and compassionate as possible," Peterson said.
The reasons for the planned eviction are multi-fold, says city attorney Dan Hoffman. Having a place like the Jungle within city limits is a problem for city lawmakers, he says: It's people on living city land where they are not legally permitted to live, where they lack proper permits and sanitation. There have been deaths and serious injuries there, he says, and the city just can't condone it any longer.
"The city is seen as not enforcing laws equally," he said. "We're in a no-win situation."
It's been a stop-and-start conversation in Ithaca, first beginning three years ago when the city's building department issued citations to Norfolk-Southern Railroad for allowing campers on the land, part of which is theirs. The city threatened to fine the rail if the campers were not evicted promptly.
In response, said Peterson, the company offered to solve the problem with their time-tested method: with force, and with dogs.
"That was not acceptable to the city," she said.
So it was back to the drawing board, which never produced a solution. This fall, Peterson and the building department decided to revisit the issue, determined to accomplish the goal.
Morrell's is a modest home, but it's still much more than just a tent pitched in the woods. A large tarp and plywood protect his tent, and across the way, there's a rustic, army-style toilet: a 10-foot-deep hole with lime and sand fill, complete with a toilet seat and a plywood shelter around it. He has a screened-in lawn gazebo, lanterns, a functioning lawnmower to keep the area tidy and a barbecue grill for cooking meals.
"I've got a lot of years worth of stuff to move," he says.
Morrell doesn't believe in societal safety nets - he said he believes that food stamps and charities like Loaves and Fishes are intended to aid women and children - so he tries to work as much as he can, either by collecting bottles and cans or doing yard work. He says he's lucky if he makes $100 in a month.
Like many of his peers in the Jungle, Morrell doesn't consider himself homeless. He's been living outside for 20 years, and he enjoys the quiet solitude of his camp in the old park by the inlet. In the winter, he uses a propane space heater that warms his area to 45 degrees, which he says is sufficient to his needs.
"I may be shelterless at times, but I'm not homeless," he says. "I'm very content living here. When I'm in the city, I can't wait to get back here, to get home."
To him, it seems like a matter of the haves against the have-nots, and he feels as though many people don't fight for the homeless and poor because they're afraid to lose what they have. When rumors of a September 15th eviction date surfaced around the city in late August, Morrell planned and executed a four day protest at City Hall.
"When you have nothing, you have nothing to lose, so you can speak up," he said. "I have nothing to lose."
Just a couple of weeks after Morrell spoke those discouraged words, a downtown board room filled to the brim with social workers, gathered to brainstorm solutions on how the city could best go about their plan. Again and again, attendees reiterated the dilemma: the Jungle is a home that most residents don't want to leave - and even if the city could provide shelters that would theoretically suit most Jungle residents, there would still be those who prefer to live outside.
The mayor was there in that room, as was the fire and the police chief, and members of the city's Common Council. There were social workers and advocates from many of the area's human service agencies and programs - the Red Cross, Loaves and Fishes, Catholic Charities, and area homeless shelters, to name just a few. There were county politicians and government-employed people and nonprofit workers, all who'd come for the purpose of finding solutions to the catch-22 before them.
"If the decision is made to relocate residents or close the Jungle, they need to have other options," said Christina Culver, executive director at Loaves and Fishes. "To close the Jungle without any viable options is unconscionable."
But even if the city can provide every Jungle resident with a viable shelter that suits their needs - a wet shelter that allows alcohol, or a dry one that does not, a women's or a men's home, a transitional shelter or one with a secret location, to name a few types - there will still be those who choose to live in the Jungle, who do not want to leave.
"A lot of us don't want anything else," Morrell said. "It's easier to [live in the Jungle], to know you are going to have a place. Always having to worry about bills, it wears on you. This way, there's less stress."
Like Morrell, Lorraine Tunnicliffe and Thomas Persun choose to live in the Jungle.
Though Tunnicliffe has a house where she can go, she still opts to spend much of her time in the Jungle. Persun holds a full-time job at a downtown restaurant, and said though he probably could afford to rent a place, he too opts for the Jungle.
"It's our home," Tunnicliffe said. "We like the country, we like outside. We like to sit around and join our friends and family. It's somewhere else to go, instead of the Commons or outside the courthouse."
"We're a tight-knit community," he said. "We help each other out, and we just want to be left alone."
And there are options, they said: the folks who live at the Jungle stay clean with showers at the Red Cross's Friendship Center, where they can also retrieve drinking water and use the bathroom. They can get meals at Loaves and Fishes.
Joel Harlan, who was also at the meeting, said that in order for people to leave the Jungle, the city would have to deliver no-strings-attached shelter arrangements. A wet shelter, or a flop house - one that permits drinking - would be one enticing option, he said.
But before the city or an organization goes ahead and builds a new shelter, they need assurance that people are going to go there, said another meeting attendee.
For city administrators, the ordeal of a Jungle eviction has been a web of rumors and confusion. First, there was the aforementioned rumor of a mid-September eviction, resulting from an early, not-to-be-released draft of an eviction notice written by Hoffman, which was somehow leaked to the Red Cross and distributed to Jungle residents. And then there were the reports Peterson referred to that local agencies had been referring some clients directly to the Jungle as a viable place to stay.
At the task force meeting, representatives from many agencies defended their organizations and their practices.
Deb Traunstein, medical social worker at Cayuga Medical Center, said that though occasionally a person will be discharged to the Jungle, it only happens when that patient has the capacity to make their own decisions and requests that as their discharge plan.
"If someone has the capacity to make decisions for themselves, we have to honor that," she said.
John Ward, director of homeless services at the Red Cross, said that the Red Cross has given people sleeping bags and tents for the Jungle in the past, but it's always done carefully, and with the ultimate motive of getting those folks into a shelter or housing.
"We're a neutral agency, a humanitarian agency," he said. "Our goal is to form bonds and to earn people's trust, so that we can give them housing."
Erik Lehmann, who runs a organization for homeless children called Dream Catalyst, said that if anyone can solve this issue, it's the people who call themselves "Ithacans."
"You hear all these words: 'no-list,' 'ineligible for treatment,' 'noncompliance'," Lehmann said. "All these words for human beings." "Let's come together and be Ithaca. Let's see what we can do creatively."
Because the city has limited resources, a true solution will take a collaboration with the county and with human service groups, said Alderman J.R. Clairborne, D-2nd. He said what Jungle residents are looking for is for people to stop trying to figure out what to do with them.
"These people just want to be left alone," Clairborne said. "They just want fresh water. It doesn't sound like a lot to ask."
"The city's cutting back in all its departments," he said. "We need to be creative."
The county has seen a rise in the number of food stamp recipients over the past several years - a canary in the economic coalmine, noted Robinson. And as the economy worsens, the Jungle continues to gain residents, said Harlan.
"People are going homeless and they're going to end up in the Jungle," Harlan said. "You've got a big problem in the city that you've got to solve, or you're not going to be able to handle it."
Neil Golder, a kitchen manager at Loaves and Fishes, said the number of people coming to get free meals has been growing steadily. For communities like the Jungle, where residents have extremely limited resources, these meals not only sustain attendees, they give them a place to relax.
"These people are victims of a society that favors those people on top," Golder said. "These people are human beings. We serve them five meals a week. I don't know about you, but I eat 21."