Thomas Rath Was Ensnared in Ithaca’s Homeless Encampment. Then He Vanished.

AS INVESTIGATORS CONTINUED searching for a man who had disappeared from the Jungle, the city of Ithaca continued searching for answers to the profound challenges posed by the unsanctioned encampment where he’d last been seen.

Plans and ideas had come and gone. Now, on Aug. 16, the latest proposal was up for discussion at a City Hall meeting of the Common Council’s planning and economic development committee. It called for three distinct zones: one that allowed camping and provided sanitary services, a second that banned camping in theory but not as much in practice and a third that strictly prohibited encampments.

Though ultimately not adopted, the draft reflected the delicate balance that many cities seek. Homelessness is not a crime, it said, and the unhoused should be accorded dignity and options for shelter. At the same time, the encampments posed challenges “related to human waste, garbage, exposure to communicable diseases, exposure to violence and other human health concerns.”

Some members of the public spoke in favor of the “housing first” approach, which holds that people need safe shelter before they can focus on issues like addiction and mental health. Others echoed the argument, espoused by a local libertarian-adjacent contingent, that the proposal criminalized homelessness and was being pushed by homeless-hating fearmongers.

This irritated George McGonigal, a Common Council member who, before stepping down in January, had spent years seeking a compassionate solution to the Jungle.

“Simply not true,” he said recently. “We’re trying to make a cleaner, safer environment for homeless people, and at the same time protect businesses and people in the neighborhood.”

Mr. McGonigal had no choice but to listen in silence as a husky man took his turn at the microphone. The speaker wore a brown T-shirt, dark sweatpants and a look of disdain as he announced his standing: “I lived in Jungle 1. I lived in Jungle 2. And I’m currently living in Jungle 3.”

This was Angelo Baez, who had repeatedly told the police that he knew nothing about Mr. Rath’s disappearance. Speaking now as if he were the encampment’s conscience, Mr. Baez scolded public officials for never visiting the Jungle to understand the nurturing community that had developed there.

“You’re just criminalizing us, calling us addicts, not seeing the work we’re doing down there,” he said.

“And yes, we do have some bad apples in the bunch,” he added. “But it’s not all of us. And to move us from where we’re at now would be really wrong.”

Exactly one week later, on a cool, cloudy Wednesday morning, the police fanned out across the Jungle. Four officers made their way to Mr. Baez’s isolated campsite. He put on shoes, found someone to care for his dogs and was taken away.

Many others were being arrested or already in custody. All because someone had finally explained why Thomas Rath wasn’t around anymore.


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