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When Tommy Rath Vanished From ‘the Jungle’

He was ensnared in Ithaca’s homeless encampment. Then, in a blur of violence, he was gone

The sprawling homeless encampment behind a stand of big-box stores has been around so long that people in the upstate New York city of Ithaca call it by name, as if referring to a neighborhood or historic district.

Police dispatchers use the term as a geographic point of reference

The Jungle.

Tucked beside railroad tracks that course through gnarly woods, the encampment harbors the disenfranchised and distrusting, the addicted and the unwell, the vulnerable and the predatory. It is an off-the-grid community, a hide-out, a drug den, a home for people with nowhere else to go. A place of freedom and fire, overdose and escape, where the police are uncertain of their role and first responders enter with caution.

But the Jungle reflects more than the often-intertwined plagues of drug addiction, mental illness and homelessness. It is also a manifestation of the policies of a proudly progressive city of 33,000 people that, like so many other communities around the country, is struggling to find a solution to its island of misery.

Recent walks into the Jungle were journeys through the detritus of desperation: discarded shopping carts, soggy plush toys, used needles, pilfered building supplies. In one corner, a mound of stolen bicycles, dozens and dozens, loomed like a metal-skeletal monument to lawlessness.

The residents live in tents, or shelters made of tarps and pallets, or makeshift compounds emanating curls of wood smoke. Scorch marks on the ground betray where campsites have burned down, or been burned down, as a result of “Jungle justice.”

If the encampment has a mascot, it is the “lost cat,” a forlorn figure painted on buildings, bridges and pretty much anything else inanimate. Its creator, a volatile Jungle resident, died last year. Overdose.

“Just a very dark place,” recalled Casandra Borland, 55, who lived in the Jungle for a year and a half before escaping. Now a health home care manager, she likened the encampment’s pull to the entangling vines of the undergrowth.

“You can feel the grip of it on your arms, over your shoulders, and around your neck,” she said. “And you know you’re going to die.”

Among those ensnared in the Jungle was a specter of a man who possessed little more than his name: Thomas Rath. Tommy, to those who knew him the longest.

A 33-year-old addict living in a tarp-and-wood hut, he was out of touch with his distraught family, out of work — out of it. He was also frightened, confiding in a friend that some people were out to get him.

Last spring, on a late May Saturday that dawned sunny but grayed by the hour, Mr. Rath was beaten, zip-tied and taken away from the Jungle. For months afterward, his violent vanishing haunted both the Rath family and the city of Ithaca, the unnerving question hanging over its forlorn sanctuary behind the big-box stores:

What happened to Tommy Rath?

By Dan Barry and Photographs By Todd Heisler

Reporting from Ithaca, N.Y.

Published May 19, 2024Updated May 24, 2024


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