Last weekend, more than 200 students and community members sat under the stars on a perfect autumn night. They were at the edge of the Jungle.
On Sept. 22, Gossa Tsegaye, assistant professor of television-radio at Ithaca College, held a free public viewing of his two-year-long project, “The Jungle’s Edge,” which explored the history and spirit of a place that the homeless of Ithaca call home.
The Jungle is a wooded enclave that runs between the Cayuga Lake Inlet and the railroad tracks in Ithaca’s West End and has been attracting the homeless for at least 70 years. Even with sirens blaring in the background and the daily passing of the train, the Jungle has a certain serenity to it.
The space is littered with fortunate findings — ripped blankets, rusted silverware and a large dream catcher made of limber sticks and dangling beer bottlecaps. In the entrance to the hideaway, a tree plastered with photos serves as a memorial for those that Jungle residents have lost.
Tsegaye said there have been many attempts by the Department of Social Services and the American Red Cross (ARC) to get help for the people of the Jungle so they can move out.
John Ward, shelter operations coordinator for the ARC, said the organization has been working with residents of the Jungle since 1983, when the Friendship Center, which offers daily services for the homeless, opened in Ithaca. He said the goal is to provide necessities like food, blankets and a mailing address until the client feels ready to enroll in more permanent help, which usually involves drug and alcohol treatment.
Ward said if the center sees five people in a day, only one of them will chose to enter a program.
“Those that live in the Jungle are choosing to live independently and without obligations,” he said. “That is their right.”
Ward said for most residents of the Jungle at one time had or still have homes, but to them, life in the Jungle is normal.
Tsegaye said most residents of Ithaca view Ithaca’s West End as a “shantytown,” but it’s common to see trains slow down to drop off water or supplies.
“The city does not own the property,” he said. “The railroad company owns the property, and if [the residents] don’t bother anyone they leave them alone.”
Lorraine Tunnicliffe, a Jungle resident, had tears in her eyes as she left the documentary screening Saturday. Tsegaye dedicated the film to Susan, a former resident of the Jungle who passed away during filming, and Tunnicliffe’s uncle, Raymond, another resident who passed away in the Jungle in 2001.
“I hope they just see the Jungle [for what it is],” she said. “There’s a big heart down there.”
Tunnicliffe has lived in the Jungle on and off for 10 of her 30 years in Ithaca. But she is not homeless. Tunnicliffe lives with her nephew on West Seneca Street and worked at the Comfort Inn until a recent injury forced her into unemployment.
The problems the residents of the Jungle face are far from extraordinary. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2005 American Community Survey (ACS), 21 percent of the population in Tompkins County lives under the poverty line, which was set nationally at $20,000 a year for a family of four. The 2000 Census reported 40 percent of the population specifically in Ithaca lives under this line, which is more than 3 times the national rate.
In Tompkins County — where there is an almost equal number of renters and homeowners — the rental vacancy rate is only 2.6 percent and the average rent is $749 a month, according to the ACS. For 55 percent of the county, more than 30 percent of their income is spent on housing alone.
Tunnicliffe returns to West Seneca every night, but said the Jungle is her home. Every morning, she brings coffee to her friends there, at least three of whom live in the Jungle permanently.
“It’s really peaceful down here,” she said. “People sit around a bonfire and drink a beer — it’s what we do.”
Tsegaye, who worked on the documentary with partner David Fogel, said they did the majority of filming before noon because of how much alcohol the residents consume by the afternoon. He said drinking and relaxing is just the way of life in the Jungle. Tsegaye said he hoped to show the public the true history of the Jungle and its residents.
“They are standing next to you. These people have names, have faces and have stories,” he said. “They could be your family members, but in this case they chose this particular way of life.”
Junior Meredith Petersen sat in the front row during the screening last weekend. She said she had never heard of the Jungle, but it didn’t surprise her that something like it existed.
“There’s poverty everywhere,” she said. “But I didn’t know [it] would be such a community.”
Though Jungle residents are open to outside help, Tsegaye said they go to the Jungle for freedom, and they take it seriously. “The Jungle’s Edge” featured a man who survived the winter, but in the true spirit of Jungle residents, he had little to complain about.
“I was lying on the ground with two to three inches of snow over me,” he said. “But I woke up to a twelve pack the next morning.”
George Bolsby, a Jungle resident who now lives with his sister in Ithaca, has been coming to the Jungle since he was 5 years old and calls it “his world.” Bolsby follows in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, who divided their time between the Jungle and the nearby city dump.
“There used to be this big tent [in the dump] where all the bums slept,” he said. “My father was one of them, but he was proud. They were real men, not men like today.”
Though Tsegaye said he wanted to tell the story before something happened and no one could.
“I think we are coming to the end of the human cycle of human experience when it comes to the Jungle,” he said. “The people who frequent that place are dying or moving.”
He said he hopes the documentary will promote discussion and plans to hold a question and answer session in November at the college.
Tunnicliffe said they never turn away people that wander in, but she can see a difference in the type of people that have been slipping through their trees.
“It’s different people, they don’t know how to handle the Jungle and what we do,” she said. “I guess some people like to see fights or argue with somebody. We don’t like to see that. This is the way we like it right here.”