Ithaca Police say it was a horrific scene yesterday afternoon where a homeless man was severely burned when his tent caught fire. Police are not releasing the identity of the 53 year old man but say he is in critical condition with burns over most of his body.
The incident draws attention to the lifestyles of a community of homeless people who live in a part of the City of Ithaca known as the "jungle." It's an island surrounded by a creek that flows through the city. The jungle traces its roots back to the '30's and 40's when it was an encampment for people who were then known as hobos. It has since become a community within a community.
Many of the people manage to live in the jungle year-round. Two men who identify themselves as Randy and Mississippi told CNY Central's Jim Kenyon why they choose to live in tents or other make-shift shelters even though they have apartments in the city. "Freedom...people come out here, it's a big campground." Mississippi said. "This is like a little country down here... a community, we're friends.", Randy added, "We have our inside problems but we work it out ourselves. Sometimes the police have to come down."
Ithaca Police have responded to a number of assaults, stabbings and other incidents in the jungle. The homeless often have drug, alcohol or mental health issues that make it difficult to blend in with normal society, so police keep a watchful eye and let them live the lives they choose. Police spokesperson Jamie Williamson says, "They're here on their own. They've chosen to come down here. Ithaca has a wide array of resources to help them, they've chosen to ignore them or not to take advantage of them. Right, wrong or indifferent this is their home."
Though the investigation into the fire which injured the homeless man continues, Williamson says there's no evidence so far of anything suspicious.