The small room was muggy. A slight pine smell drifted in the air. City Hall’s air conditioning system was malfunctioning, so everyone was moved around to accommodate for the repairs. Two windows were cracked open to let out the summer heat. Water, coffee and donuts were available in the hall just outside the room. An American flag hung from its pole in the corner, slightly waving with each warm breeze that careened across it. An oak podium stood at the head of the room facing the double doors on the opposite side. Next to the podium was a plush executive’s chair. To the right of the chair were ten stackable chairs arranged in two rows of five facing the double doors. The rest of the room was filled with stackable chairs in rows facing the podium.
The vice chair of the planning commision, Dori, was the first to enter the room. She had a cup of water in her hand. She took her place in the executive’s chair and kept looking at her watch. There was an important dinner she had to attend to after the meeting. The hot room irked her.
The other planning commision members slowly filed in one at a time. They each took their seats in the designated area set aside for them beside the podium. Some had water, some coffee, none had donuts. The clock on the wall above the doors read 3:32 p.m. One of the members said to another that he was only obligated to wait until three forty-five, after that he was leaving. The other member said that in any case, even if the meeting commences, they were only supposed to stay till four thirty at the latest. They both looked at the clock again and sighed.
The clock now read 3:34 p.m. A third member questioned Dori if she knew where Norman, the planning commision chair, was. Dori said she did not know.
Norman walked in a couple minutes later. He was holding a donut and a cup of coffee. After placing his things down near the podium, he finished his donut and coffee and started talking with the members that were in attendance. The phone on the wall behind them started to ring. Dori got up and answered it. After hanging up, she informed everyone that two members were not able to make it tonight, so it would just be eight members and the two chairs. One of the members grumbled about having better places to be. The two clock-watching members from before looked at the clock again. It read 3:41 p.m. They looked at each other wistfully.
Norman looked at the clock and saw that he had enough time to go out and grab another donut and coffee. He left the room and came back in with two donuts, a cup of coffee, and a person no one else had seen before. The clock read 3:44 p.m.
Norman motioned to Dori. “That is Dori, the vice chair. They over there are the members. That’s all who will be here today, including myself of course. Two members are out. Dori, this is Paula. She is the person who will be speaking to us today. She said she had others with her as well. They are on the way.”
Dori stood up to shake Paula’s hand. The two clock-watching members shook their heads in unison. The second one whispered four-thirty to the first one, making him smile a little. Paula shook Dori’s hand and then waved to the members. Two of them waved back, the others were busy on their phones. Paula sat down in a chair in the second row facing the podium.
Dori sat back down. “Well Paula, the meeting starts at three forty-five and ends at four thirty, so you may want to start so you can say all that you want to. The other people you have coming in can speak when they arrive, granted it is before four thirty.”
Paula nodded and stood up. The members took out their notepads and pencils. Dori sat up, and Norman took his place behind the podium. He asked for attention before starting.
Norman laid out the general schedule for the meeting. He said Paula would state her position and then he would ask clarifying questions. Then the members would ask questions if they had any, and Paula would answer those as well. After that, Dori would restate everything, make sure everyone is okay with what she had summarized, and then they would adjourn. The next day Dori would submit the paperwork to the city clerk, who would then pass it along to the city council for discussion.
As Norman finished, a family of three came into the room quietly. Paula smiled and waved the family over to sit near her. The mother looked to be in her 50s. She had a red shirt on that was too big for her. She was overweight and her pants were light green capris. Her hair was put in a ponytail. When she smiled back at Paula, the others in the room noticed most of her teeth were missing.
The father looked younger than the mother. His eyes sagged and the bags under them were noticeable. He had tattoos on his neck and hands. Dori was sure he probably had them all over his body except that he had on long sleeves and pants so she couldn’t tell. His shirt was a faded black long sleeve shirt with pleats on the back. It looked like a piece of a tuxedo ensemble. His pants were over-sized khakis held on by a leather belt. He had on clean Nike Cortez’s. His head was shaved and he had a goatee. He was shorter in height than the mother.
Their little girl hid behind the father. She wore a dress with sunflowers printed on it. Her hair was neatly combed and held up with a sunflower hairpin. Her stockings were a beautiful white, and her shoes were clean, white and pointed with a little strap on top. The half-Mexican half-Caucasian girl had a smudge of chocolate on her cheek. The mother wiped it off with her finger when she noticed it.
Norman waved to the little girl. She retreated further behind her father’s leg. The father told her she should wave back. She lifted her hand waist-high and gave Norman a slight wave of her fingers. The family sat down in the row behind Paula.
“Is this all who is coming today Paula?” Norman asked.
“Yes it is.”
“May we have their names?”
“This is Jeannie, this is Albert, and this cute little girl is Michelle. They will be speaking a bit later as they are much more involved with the situation than me.”
“And just to clarify…This situation you speak of is about redistricting the city, correct? There are many different commissions so I want to make sure you don’t waste your time today. This isn’t about any kind of government assistance or anything like that?”
“The only assistance we need from you is to hear us out and consider our request.”
“Okay, you may proceed.”
Paula got a folder out from her bag and walked up to the members. She handed out photos to pass around. Paula then addressed the members and Dori and Norman.
“Where do you think these photos were taken? No idea? If I were making a blind guess, it wouldn’t be unthinkable to name any number of third world countries.”
The photos showed tall trees and plants adjacent to creeks and dirt trails. Among the trees were what looked to be tents, huts, and makeshift houses. Many people were shown living in these houses. Dogs could be seen as well. One photo showed an asian man cooking on a grill over a metal oil pan. He looked to be cooking corn and some kind of meat. Another photo was of children wading in the dirty creek. Trash was everywhere in all the photos.
“Look at this photo. A trench dug out for shelter from the elements. Slats of corrugated metal line the inner walls. If you look closely, you can see a thin line just before the opening to the house. That’s a booby-trap trigger. If someone tripped it, a small explosion made possible by household products would go off, sending nails and screws flying in all directions. For all intents and purposes, I could tell someone that this photo was taken in 1969 in the heart of Vietnam during the war and they would most likely believe me. The truth is that it was taken two weeks ago right here in the city that you all live in. It is a place locals call The Jungle.”
Paula walked back to her bag. “The family behind me are members of this community.”
Paula looked back at the clock. It read 3:58 p.m. “I am short on time so I will just give you a brief history of them. Jeannie has been homeless since she ran away from an abusive family at the age of 16. She is 34 now. Al has been in and out of jail and The Jungle since he was 13. He is 33. Michelle was born in The Jungle, in the very booby-trapped house you see in that photo. When Jeannie was giving birth to Michelle, a neighbor had run out to a convenience store just a block away to call 911 for an ambulance. The paramedics showed up 47 minutes later. Michelle was delivered thanks to the citizens of The Jungle, particularly an ex-Army medic that goes by the name Doc.”
Paula looked back at Jeannie and whispered to her. Jeannie then whispered to Michelle, who got up and walked over to Paula. “Michelle, tell the nice people here how old you are.”
“Four years old. And tell them how long you have lived in The Jungle.”
“All the time.”
“Great. Now I want you to think really hard, okay? Tell them how you feel about where you live. Take your time.”
Michelle looked at Paula and shook her head. Paula knelt down beside her and hugged her, whispering into her ear. Michelle looked down at the ground, sniffling. A tear started to stream down her cheek.
“You don’t have to talk if you don’t want to mija.”
Michelle looked up at Norman, who was finishing his second donut. She then looked at Dori, who averted her eyes down to her laptop. She then looked back at her dad, who smiled and held up a fist. Michelle spoke up.
“What do you mean it’s hard?”
“It’s hard when mama and papa aren’t there.”
“Where do they go?”
“To get food.”
“Are you alone when they go to get food?”
“No, Joe is there.”
“Who is Joe?”
“My friend. He watches me when mama and papa have to leave.”
“Do you like living in The Jungle?”
“What do you like about it?”
“I like that everyone is nice. No one is mean like when we have to leave.”
“Leave? You mean out of The Jungle?”
“How are people mean to you out of The Jungle?”
“They yell at mama and papa. They make us sleep in different places.”
“Like at the shelters? Or outside?”
“In the buildings with the beds.”
“What don’t you like about The Jungle?”
“It’s cold a lot.”
“It’s hot today though, huh?”
Paula thanked Michelle and gave her another hug. She turned to the planning commision.
“We are not seeking government assistance. The people in The Jungle deserve more than that. A few measly handouts and putting them in some housing program that is so strict they are destined to be homeless again is not assistance. No, what these people need is a voice and legal rights so that they can reap the same benefits as everyone else in this city. That is why we are here, to ask that the city council consider adding a new district, District 11, and making it primarily in the vicinity of The Jungle and various other encampments that are close to it. If not that, then at the very least we are asking to redistrict the city in order to include The Jungle as a legitimate neighborhood with addresses.
“Many of these people work. They do their taxes. Yet they still cannot afford to live in this city. All we are asking for is legal rights and a chance to vote. They have no home outside of The Jungle.”
Paula sat down. Norman looked at Dori, who was typing notes on her laptop. He put his coffee down. “Thank you Paula. So to clarify—you are looking to create a brand new district or incorporate this area into an existing district?”
“Yes sir, that is what the residents of The Jungle have asked for,” answered Paula.
“Fine. Before we pass this on to the city council, I must let you know some things about redistricting. One, the ten current districts, while varying in physical size, are all roughly the same in population size. That is what keeps the city fairly divided. That is also why you getting your own district would not be an option, unless you have somewhere over 90,000 people living in this jungle of yours.”
“No sir, there’s not that many people. But there are 247 families as of two weeks ago.”
“Ok, so then your second request. We can request redistricting, but you must know that the area of The Jungle is not zoned for residential and so it would never be recognized as a viable neighborhood. Looking at the pictures you brought, I don’t think it will ever be zoned as such either.”
“If we can be given the requirements for the zoning that would be great.”
“I will get that for you before you go,” said Dori.
“Thank you,” said Paula.
“One last question, then I will turn it over to the members. What exactly do you plan to do if you were somehow given what you asked for?” asked Norman.
“I will let Al answer this one. He has been a large factor for this movement,” said Paula.
Albert stood up and nodded to Paula. He was holding on to his notes, and his hands were slightly shaking as he addressed the planning commission.
“Hello, my name is Albert. I have talked to Paula and her team for a while now about this dream of mine. If given the opportunity to make The Jungle a legitimate neighborhood, we would then be able to ask for help from the city for things like garbage services and police patrol. This would make our neighborhood safer and cleaner. As a former carpenter, I would help my neighbors build more sturdy homes. The most important thing though would be that The Jungle would be a place for people that need a place to stay and get back on their feet without being harassed by the Housing Authority or the sheriff or anyone else that doesn’t like our lifestyle. The Jungle would be a safe haven for people of all colors and backgrounds. Thank you for your time.”
“Thank you Albert. Dori do you have anything to ask?” asked Norman.
“No, let’s move on to the members.”
“Any members that have questions or need any clarifying statements please stand up.”
Two members stood up. The first, a man in the front, was quick to stand. The other was an older woman that seemed to be debating whether to stand or not. Norman pointed to the man. “Go ahead Miguel.”
Miguel turned toward Paula and the family. “Good afternoon. I have one question. What do you mean you don’t want help? I mean, my brother-in-law works for a non-profit agency that helps place homeless people in homes. He is very happy in his work. He says he helps many people. We both came from the Philippines, so we know what it is like to live in poverty. How is this direction you are taking any better for the people in The Jungle than help from non-profits?”
Jeannie raised her hand. Paula told her to go ahead and answer.
“Lemme tell ya somethin. I’ve been in the system since god-knows-when. Lord knows I woulda done myself in if Al didn’t come along when he did. I been beaten, stabbed, raped…jesus, everything. I’m a recovering addict. And guess what? All of this was before I found The Jungle. Also guess what. Those nonprofits have always been around. But you know what? Give a man a fish. That’s what they do. We want to learn to catch our own you know? The Jungle isn’t perfect, but I’ll be damned if it isn’t home. No one bugs us. No one hates us. We can be invisible in peace. Hell, I didn’t even want to do all of this here legal stuff. I told Al to just drop it, lets live comfortable. He said he had to do this. Don’t know why, but he a smart man. Loving too. So I’ll back him. But to you sir, keep your help, all it does is make the crazies down there mad with envy. That’s what the booby traps is for.”
Albert stood up. “If I may sir, thank you for your question. My wife is correct. The help your brother-in-law provides is a nice gesture, but it will never be enough. We are smart people and can do well for ourselves if given the rights we ask for. We can’t help ourselves if you make us leave The Jungle though. We get spread out, people lose touch. It’s the main reason why we want to keep our community together.”
One of the clock-watching members stood up.
“I’m sorry but what the hell are you talking about? You’re so smart, yet you’re living in the damn gutter! You gave birth to a kid in one of the filthiest places I have ever seen. These non-profits want to help y’all out, but you refuse? C’mon, get a grip dude. The Jungle is just a bunch of people that fell through the cracks and now are holed up together in one place. It’s a black mark on the city. Now you have the audacity to come and ask to be recognized as a legitimate neighborhood? Psh, I’m sorry, but nah. Nah.”
Albert and Jeannie sat down. Miguel glared at Josh, the member who stood up. Norman asked Josh to sit down and wait his turn if he had questions or comments. He then asked Miguel if he had further questions. Miguel said no and sat down. Paula raised her hand. Norman told her to go ahead.
“I’m glad you brought this up sir. It has been brought up every time we have come and asked for help. We don’t have much time, so I will keep the answer short.
“You are right. These people fell through the cracks. Of course not everyone down at The Jungle is perfect, nor a saint. Neither are people anywhere though. Many of them are immigrants or children of immigrants. Many are a reflection on the education system. And then there are some who actually owned businesses, did well in life, but either lost their business and couldn’t recoup the losses or realized that they weren’t truly free in the society that you and I live in.
“Overall, the problem, hard as it may seem, is segregation. You look at the city and divide it by economic brackets. You will notice that more affluent areas tend to be populated by the caucasian population and the poor areas are filled with minorities. When a city is divided that much, it is hard for the poor areas to get better because they don’t get the support they need. Poor areas foster poor schools, which foster uneducated children, which foster crime and poverty, etc. You get the idea.
“What these residents want to do is not just up and leave the problem, but meet it head on and improve the area. Al is trying to change the culture of the ghetto mindset. It may be a moot fight, but it’s admirable.”
Josh grumbled. Norman then asked the old lady, Grace, for her question.
“Hello my dears. I just wanted to apologize for the terrible realities you have had to face in your lives. I wholeheartedly believe in your cause. My son is the mayor. I will be telling him what was discussed today. I cannot believe I have never heard of this jungle. My question is Where is it located exactly? I would like to help as much as possible.”
“The Jungle is located right near Happy Hollow Park, under the freeway overpass and it extends to about an acre in size, roughly following the trail and creek. No one bothers the residents there because it is well hidden, but more importantly, the residents keep to themselves. Since the police do not go down there, they have there own policing system, and it works. Mostly, they just accept everyone though. No discrimination goes a long way.”
Grace thanked Paula for the answer and sat down. Paula looked at Norman. “Sir, I would like to make a closing statement.”
“Go ahead. You have five minutes. Then Dori will read the statement that she will submit to the city council. Then we can all go home.”
“Thank you. To date, we have explored many different avenues of help, all resulting in dead ends. I cannot believe, as Grace just said, that people who live here in one of the most economically rich cities of the country have no idea that the largest homeless encampment in America is just 11 miles down the freeway from Apple, the most profitable company in America. The encampment is next door to Wal-Mart, the world’s largest public corporation.
“These people are just looking for some simple rights, some semblance that they are a part of this society still. Most of them weren’t born in The Jungle like Michelle, but they choose to stay there now because it’s a place where they can feel like humans again. To be acknowledged is sometimes all a person wants. It’s certainly all the residents of The Jungle are asking for.” Paula sat down.
The clock read 4:31 p.m. Norman asked Dori to read what she will submit to the city council.
Dori stood up. “I just want to say thank you for bringing this issue to light here today. Whatever the outcome is, we hope you feel you were served justly and given fair representation from this commision. After I read the statement everyone is free to leave. I will now read the statement that will be given to city council:
“One, Paula Dominguez, on behalf of Jeannie Martinez, Albert Martinez and Michelle Martinez, have requested the city council to look into two potential redistricting proposals. The first is to create a new district that comprises the area and boundary of Story Road, Coyote Creek, 101 North and 280 South, also known as ‘The Jungle.’ The other proposal is to redistrict the city in order to include this area into a current district. They feel if this proposal passes that they will be able to help the current residents of this area.”
Dori sat down and looked at Norman. Norman asked if there was anything incorrect in the statement. Paula shot up from her chair, but Albert patted her on the shoulder before she could speak. Paula looked at Albert and then at Michelle. She grabbed her bag and started to leave the room without saying anything.
Albert grabbed Jeannie and Michelle’s hands.
“Everything was correct sir. Thank you for your time.”