Jimmy Cawley/Sun Dining Editor

The "Jungle" is located less than two miles away from Cornell's main campus, where the median family income of a student is $151,600.

April 24, 2023

Shedding Light to the “Jungle,” Drug-Ridden Homeless Encampments a Mile Away From Cornell

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Commonly referred to as the “Jungle” by local residents, it is difficult to take more than 10 steps before spotting orange needle caps in Ithaca’s hub for homeless encampments. Graffiti, stolen items and a confederate flag haunt the region as many Ithaca residents who find work in the area voiced serious safety concerns.

The “Jungle” refers to homeless encampments that stretch along a tucked-away rail track. (Jason Wu/Sun Senior Editor)

“[The first responders] had to pull the dead body out of the river,” said Budd Dickson, who works at Ithaca Agway, located less than 100 feet from one of the many encampments. “The guy overdosed and rolled himself down the river last year.”

Less than two miles away from Cornell’s main campus, where the median family income of a student is $151,600 and more than 10 percent of its student body comes from America’s wealthiest one percent, homeless encampments stretch along a tucked-away rail track. The encampments extend for many blocks, reaching the backdoors of popular stores including Wegmans, Walmart and Lowe’s.

The “Jungle” reaches the backdoors of popular stores including Wegmans, Walmart and Lowe’s, that complain of frequent property theft. (Jason Wu/Sun Senior Editor)

According to Mike Boynton, who works at Walmart, there are frequent sounds of explosions coming from the encampments. Boynton stated that along with several other stores in the area, Walmart is a frequent victim of property theft, including prevalent stealing of shopping carts. 

“[The sound] is from cooking meth[amphetamine],” Boynton said. “It happens frequently in the summertime.”

According to George McGonigal, first ward alderperson of Ithaca, the city’s homeless population is rapidly increasing, with there now being roughly 60 homeless people in the city.

“People are getting robbed,” McGonigal said. “Wegmans loses food, shopping carts and people are harassed when going to their cars, particularly in the evening.”

The “Jungle” has existed since as early as 1926, according to various officials in the Tompkins County government. Today, tension arises in discussing how much the city and the county should help the unhoused population, as some residents fear that the current policies — including providing showers and bathrooms — are functioning as enablers of homeless presence in Ithaca.

“I am a life-long liberal, democrat and social justice [advocate]. I am as bleeding heart as you can get,” said local resident Gregory Perreault. “This is a big time problem for businesses and individuals around here. Ithaca is trying to make an effort on it. I think they are airing a little bit too carefully on the side of civil liberties and compassion because there is a definite subset of the homeless population that is criminal.”

Liddy Bargar, director of Housing Initiatives at the Human Services Coalition of Tompkins County, disagrees that the city and county’s policies and services enable homelessness.

“Enabling is when you deny a full-grown adult the ability to do something that they are otherwise capable of doing,” Bargar said. “But if the person does not have the actual tools, ability or access to the resource to do the thing and another person provides that resource, I do not consider that enabling.”

Substance abuse in the “Jungle” has been connected to the regular cases of theft in the area. (Jason Wu/Sun Senior Editor)

According to McGonigal, substance abuse is a prominent theme in several encampment sites, and this makes the problem much more delicate and complex.  

“People of the ‘Jungle’ are also my constituents. They live in the city. The ‘Jungle’ has been around before I came to Ithaca 40 years ago,” McGonigal said. “I think what is driving a lot of the theft is drug addiction. Because people who are not normally thieves — if they are addicted to drugs — they need to get those drugs and they need money to get those drugs. The drug makes people do things that they normally would not.”

The city of Ithaca and Tompkins County has been working collaboratively to devise long-term solutions and provide temporary measures to ensure community safety and reduce homelessness.

According to McGonigal, Ithaca has been allocating its resources to build showers and toilets to strategically incentivize unhoused people to relocate to safer and more controlled areas of the encampment sites. HSCTC recently proposed a 48-page plan to tackle homelessness in Ithaca, which included its commitment to building 100 single units of permanent supportive housing, low-barrier shelter, a cash for trash program and professional development opportunities. 

Instead of approaching homelessness in a more traditional “staircase” model — which offers housing at the last step after unhoused people become clean from substance and find employment — HSCTC Housing Specialist Simone Gatson believes that housing must come first.

“People with severe service needs fall during one of the steps [of requirement], and they end up in the encampments, sleeping outside or couch surfing,” Gatson said. “Housing first is really that belief that people are ready for housing and that having a stable base of housing will actually allow them to meet some of those goals of employment or being sober.”

Both McGonigal and Bargar recognized that despite the various community efforts, homelessness in Ithaca is not likely to end permanently or anytime soon. Bargar voiced that moving forward, the housing first solution to the “Jungle” will require proper maintenance and care for the homeless response system. 

“We are aware that even with our best plan and all hands on deck, people may still experience homelessness,” Bargar said. “But if that is the case, we want that to be a rare occurrence, and we think it should be brief and only one time. That is our goal.”