Mayor Carolyn Peterson and other city officials addressed concerns that the city planned to evict residents of the Jungles — two sets of encampments occupied by many of Ithaca’s homeless residents — and considered alternatives to the Jungles at a filled-to-capacity meeting of the city’s Homeless and Housing Task Force on Wednesday.
Although Peterson confirmed that a draft eviction notice had been circulated to several human service agencies, she asserted her commitment to finding an alternative solution to eviction, and she looked to the meeting’s attendees to come up with creative answers to the sanitation, health and safety problems facing Jungle residents.
“This is something that is always on our minds,” Peterson said. “What really worries me, as a compassionate person, is that people are not getting immediate help from emergency services because there is no address [for the Jungle].”
Deb Traunstein, a social worker at Cayuga Medical Center, said that while she knew of people who had left the center and returned to the Jungle, these instances were not the result of instruction from the hospital.
“We recommend going to Red Cross or other social services, but there are certain individuals who have burned a bridge and aren’t able to use the options we recommend,” Traunstein said. “We need to honor the decisions people make for themselves.”
John Ward, director of the Tompkins County Red Cross, added that he, too, had given sleeping bags to Jungle residents but had “stopped when all of this came up.”
Representatives from human service agencies, as well as city officials, remain largely conflicted on the best approach for regulating the Jungle in a timely manner.
“I’m concerned that we’re overcomplicating this,” said Alderperson J.R. Clairborne (D-2nd Ward), a Democratic candidate for mayor. If we do want to find a solution, “then we move forward with an attitude of ‘yes we can’ so we don’t waste [the residents’] time or our own,” he said.
The creation of a wet shelter — a shelter for homeless people that permits residents to consume alcohol — was a main point of discussion among many of the human service representatives, though most remained divided over the feasibility and overall benefit of such a solution.
Christina Culver, executive director of Loaves and Fishes, a local soup kitchen, said she was in favor of a wet shelter as an option for housing Jungle residents, who would be considered outsiders in the current system.
“A lot of our people have difficulty fitting into any other situation available in Ithaca right now,” Culver said. “It is incumbent on this city to have other housing options that have regulations that are not as stringent.”
Some human service agency representatives, however, said that they refuse to pay for a wet shelter and expressed concern about funding the facility.
“We need to take ownership of this problem, and a one-size-fits-all approach is not going to work — there are going to be people who don’t want this [wet shelter],” said Alicia Plotkin, senior attorney at Tompkins/Tioga Neighborhood Legal Services.
Despite these ongoing discussions about alternative housing options, residents of the Jungle overwhelmingly expressed their desire to be left alone by the city.
Thomas Persun, a former U.S. Army Ranger who lives in the Jungle year-round and works a full-time job at the State Street Diner said that he thrives on being “a survivalist.”
“I could afford to get a room for myself If I buckled down … My budget would be tight but I could do it. But I choose not to. I choose to live in the Jungle and mind my own damn business, and I feel safer down there than I do in the streets of Ithaca,” Persun said. “I do fine on my own.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly quoted Alicia Plotkin saying, “I will not pay for anything that involves any level of substance abuse.” In fact, she said HUD would not pay for such a program. The article also incorrectly stated Plotkin’s position. She is a senior attorney at Tompkins/Tioga Neighborhood Legal Services.
Original Author: Liz Camuti