February 25, 2010

Ithaca Considers Future of ‘Jungle’ Residents

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The Jungle — a narrow strip of land between the railroad tracks and the inlet of Cayuga Lake behind Wegman’s where Ithaca’s homeless find community — has been brought to the attention of local media in recent months. In spite of the recent attention, Jungle residents are still tendentious about their right to remain.

The Ithaca Fire Department issued a series of complaints in Spring 2009 about recurring incidents of open burning in the area, which pushed the City of Ithaca’s Building Department to inspect the area in June 2009. The results of the inspection infused the ongoing discussions about the Jungle among community members with renewed urgency.

Along with open burning that releases toxic pollutants, the city’s building department discovered other violations.

“The Jungle lies in a private property so the residents there are trespassing on private property,” Dan Hoffman, city attorney of Ithaca, said. “Also, the structures there don’t have permits. They don’t have sanitary facilities in the Jungle; for example, trash disposal facilities.”

In light of these violations, the city issued a letter to Norfolk Southern Corporation, the railroad company that owns part of the lands where the Jungle is located. The city requested Norfolk to vacate the area of homeless people by about mid-July or the company would be charged $1,000 per day, according to Hoffman.

“We posted signs around the perimeter of our property advising that it was private property and requesting that people vacate the area.” Rudy Husband, director of public relations of Norfolk, said. “For the most part they did, migrating over to adjacent city property.”

Yet, the matter became more complicated when the city realized that part of the land falls under its own jurisdiction. According to Rudy Husband, director of public relations of Norfolk, the majority of trespassers lived on city property.

The complication in defining land ownership, as well as the concerns expressed by the community regarding Jungle residents, forced the city to suspend the deadline that they previously prescribed in the letter to Norfolk.

“The city requested that we hold off enforcing New York state trespassing statutes against those individuals that remained on our property, which we did. That’s where things stand.” Husband said.

According to John Ward, director of homeless services at the Tompkins County Chapter of the National American Red Cross, the possibility of sharing the penalty with the railroad is what prevented the city from upholding the regulations.

“The city doesn’t want to do anything and the railroad doesn’t want to draw attention to themselves. The city would have to fine themselves if they decide to fine the railroad,” Ward explained. “The whole point was to have the residents in the Jungle not put the safety of the Ithaca community members at risk. The service that fire department provides costs them time and fuel and it puts other citizens at risk. But the fire department hasn’t been there since summer. As long as the burning doesn’t happen again, the city will not take action.”

The matter incited such debate that the Human Services Coalition, along with other human service agencies in Ithaca and the city officials, held a movie screening this past January of the documentary The Jungle’s Edge, produced by Prof. Gossa Tsegaye, television-radio, Ithaca College. The documentary aimed to spark discussions regarding the Jungle and larger issues of homelessness around the country. According to Ward, more than 150 people from all walks of the community attended the screening. Its success encouraged the organizing parties to host a second forum to brainstorm and consider alternative solutions for Jungle residents.

“The date of the second part isn’t decided yet but I think they are trying to find solutions to help people into housing. But the people in the Jungle prefer to be there.” Ward stated. “They have the right to choose to be homeless. It’s everyone’s right to choose services that suit them best.”

Original Author: Jackie Lam