Ithaca – March 24, 2014 – Rick Sherman, 53, was asleep in his tent on a freezing December night in the Ithaca Jungle, a makeshift encampment in the woods where Ithaca’s homeless have resided for decades. Earlier, he had promised a friend that he would use his weekend to help paint cottages built for homeless people like himself.
But that night, Sherman’s tent caught fire. One day later, he succumbed to his burns.
Sherman, whom a friend describes as a selfless man with a giving heart, is one of many inhabitants of the Ithaca Jungle who died over the past few years. Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick, whose family moved with him into a homeless shelter a week after he was born, has called for the Jungle to be cleared.
“[The city has] allowed them to live there because there is this myth about the place that it is a romantic, hobo encampment where people who just live outside the bounds of society can live freely, and that those who live there want to live there,” Myrick told Ithaca Week. “The death this past fall, the deaths we have every year, the assaults, the overdoses laid bare to me a reality that the Jungle is not a romantic place.”
Myrick said the city is hoping to clear the Jungle by working with the county, the state, the non-profit sector and the community of faith to create more options for people who are homeless.
Tom Persun lived in the Jungle for four years, before a community member lifted him out of homelessness. Today, Persun sits in his cottage in Newfield, N.Y. He watches television as his parrot, Keet, chirps away happily in a corner. It is approximately 80 degrees inside but the thought of the Jungle life sends chills down Persun’s spine.
“It’s great to have a shower,” Persun said of his new home. “It’s great to be able to cook whenever I want to. It’s great to be able to keep food in a cold environment. Having a refrigerator and a microwave, having running water, having a toilet and not just running behind a tree. It’s a dream come true. I couldn’t be happier with my life right now.”
Newfield resident Carmen Guidi spearheaded efforts to build Persun’s current home. It is one of six houses that make up Second Wind Cottages, which are situated next to Guidi’s Collision Shop in Newfield.
Last year, Guidi cleared the Ithaca Jungle temporarily through his efforts to find homes for inhabitants. Today, these people live in Second Wind Cottages, in the Court Street Rescue Mission and the West State Street Rescue Mission that was formerly the Red Cross. Most of them, like Persun, have jobs to support themselves.
A mission trip to Haiti was what first inspired Guidi to look into homelessness in Ithaca.
“I went to Haiti about four years ago and I didn’t come back the same person,” he said. “That’s when I decided to reach out to people less fortunate than myself in a community that I have lived in my whole life and had no idea that there were any homeless people in Ithaca.”
Guidi said he started visiting the Jungle three years ago, bringing pizzas and soda and spending time with the men who lived there. But it was never Guidi’s intention to clear the Jungle — he said he was just helping his new friends. Guidi later went on to build the six Second Wind cottages, with 12 more and a community center expected to be built over the next few years.
He also took the first step to bring the Syracuse Rescue Mission to Ithaca. The rescue mission can house a maximum of 19 people, Alan French, program manager at the Rescue Mission in Ithaca, said. It is funded largely by sales at the local Thrifty Shopper store.
“We are working to move people out of the apartments upstairs to longer-term housing in the community and then using those apartments as transitional spaces for people who are ready for a step toward independence but not ready to move out completely on their own yet,” French said.
Each year, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development requires the county to count the number of homeless people, Kathleen Schlather, executive director of the Human Services Coalition of Tompkins County, said. This year’s numbers were higher than last year, she said. But there’s a caveat.
“We don’t necessarily think there are more homeless people this year; we just think we did a better job counting,” she said. “It’s really hard to know. There are invisible populations.”
As part of a goal to create more options for homeless people, Myrick said, the Tompkins County Action organization is also working with the city to build Magnolia House, a homeless shelter for women and families that is expected to open this fall.
Meanwhile, Guidi said helping the homeless is a task that requires people to dedicate time, not just money. He said despite the fact that America is one of the world’s most affluent countries, the reality is there are people living without a roof over their heads.