This morning, the city council was briefed on a recent interagency visit to the Jungle, the 150-acre greenbelt between Dearborn and S. Lucile Streets in Southeast Seattle. The full report on the state of things at the Jungle is available here.
Officials from the fire department, the Human Services Department, and King County Health described a place unfit for human habitation at which, nonetheless, an estimated 400 people are still living. Piles of human waste, needles, trash, and other detritus as well as an epidemic of violence in the rough encampment have led city officials and nonprofit service providers to keep their distance from the Jungle, staying on the periphery while chaos goes on inside.
“We are not going to ask our providers to go in that area and put themselves at harm,” HSD’s Jason Johnson told the council. King County Public Health’s Darrell Rodgers added that although the county “feels this is imminent and threatening,” they need data to get grants to fix the problem …and they can’t get data without going in to the Jungle, which they won’t do because it isn’t safe.
At the end of the briefing, two council members presented fundamentally conflicting proposals for dealing with the Jungle. Tim Burgess went first, suggesting that the place simply needed to be cleared out for the safety of its occupants and people in surrounding neighborhoods.
“There’s no ambiguity in my mind about these unsanctioned encampments. These unsanctioned encampments are inherently dangerous, they pose significant public health and safety challenges, and we’ve heard this morning a rather shocking assessment. I think the city has an obligation to act, not only for the residents who are living in these areas but also for the surrounding areas. This is a significant public safety threat in our city and we should not allow these unsanctioned encampments to happen in our city… This has been this way for decades and it’s not safe. If there are 400 people living in this area, those are 400 people who are at extreme risk of harm, and it’s the obligation of the city government to make sure that hey are not at risk of harm. We would not allow this in any other area of our city, so why would we allow it to happen here?” Burgess said.
O’Brien responded directly to Burgess’ question: “I believe the reason we allow that to happen here is through a set of policies that implicitly encourage this. We know the reality there are around 400 folks living in the Jungle. We also all recognize the challenge we face when we have hundreds of people in our communities in much more visible places, perhaps with better access to things like bathrooms and stores and sanitation, and in direct contact w residences and businesses. This is one of the few places where folks can go and essentially of out of sight, and people are making that decision for a variety of reasons.
“I agree with Council Member Burgess that it’s deplorable that this situation exists. What’s less clear to me is what the solution is. I would like to see no one living in the Jungle. I would like to see all those folks moved out to there and transitioned into something better. … I don’t know that our system has the capacity to take 400 people out of there today. And if we’re simply saying, you can’t be there today without providing an alternative, we are simply taking people who are in a bad situation and making it worse.”
Without a solution, what those who say, “Just move them out of there” are really saying is “let’s just throw them all in jail.” As long as we criminalize homelessness without providing alternatives, and without recognizing that many people face significant barriers (addiction, mental health issues, lack of socialization) to living in traditional shelters or housing, we’re saying, “I’d rather warehouse homeless people than find a solution that actually helps.”
And even if that notion doesn’t bother you, jail costs a hell of a lot more than providing a Dumpster and some portable toilets while we figure out how to meet people where they are instead of imposing one-size-fits-all solutions and sweeps that just push homeless people further out of sight and beyond our helping.