Homeless in Ithaca

Faculty member Gossa Tsegaye ’76 makes a documentary about “the Jungle.”
By Liz Getman '09

Homelessness is “the state or condition of having no home,” or “the state of living in the streets.” But some choose to ascribe a different meaning to the word — and for them, it is possible to live “in the streets” and still be at home.

“What is a home?” asks Gossa Tsegaye ’76, assistant professor of television-radio. His 30-minute documentary The Jungle’s Edge tells the stories of eight residents of the Jungle — a small wooded area off the Cayuga Lake inlet in Ithaca’s west end that has served as a home for more than 70 years. The number of people living there varies, with about 15 during warm weather and 3 or 4 in winter. 

“I cannot stand being in a house in the summer months,” says one longtime Jungle resident. “This is where I come.” 

The film premiered this fall on an outdoor screen at the entrance to the Jungle, drawing an audience of about 200. Tsegaye hopes it helps change people’s perception of homelessness. “The people there have a unique style of living,” he says. The longest frequent resident, George Bowlsby III, has lived in and out of the Jungle for 55 years, since he was 5 years old. He and many residents have alternatives, such as living with relatives or friends or spending the night in shelters. Though they prefer the freedom and fresh air of the Jungle, most take advantage of such options when the weather grows frigid. Some work at odd jobs or receive medical or disability funding from the state. Others collect returnables to exchange for money. Local soup kitchens provide most of their meals, but occasion-ally they gather in the Jungle for a cookout. “We provide for each other,” says one woman. “If one has, everyone has.”

Tsegaye spent more than two years filming and editing, helped by Joseph McCormick ’09, Anthony Sabato ’06, and local resident David Fogel. “[Tsegaye] got people to open up,” McCormick says. “He captured their trust. It shows up in the final product.”

“There is a stigma attached to being homeless,” Tsegaye says. “But the homeless are not a throw-away of society. Everybody has a story to tell, and their stories need to be told.”