How Do You Solve a Problem Like the Jungle?


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.

3 thoughts on “How Do You Solve a Problem Like the Jungle?”

  1. Mr. Preston, every comment of yours that I’ve read lately very speedily devolves into a criticism of Nickelsville, and also an ad for your own blog (which is also mostly about Nickelsville). Why would you think that your obsession is interesting to anyone else?

  2. I’ve been ruminating on this all day, and I don’t think Burgess was saying just sweep them out and/or throw them in jail. Burgess believes ALL unsanctioned homeless encampments are inherently dangerous. He said these people are in great danger, and we need to act. That said, it’s not at all clear he has an idea for what the solution is. Granted, he was pretty ham-fisted in his remarks and O’Brien was far better, but Burgess did say “it’s the obligation of the government to make sure they are not at risk of harm.” He didn’t say “the neighbors and the drivers on I-5 are at risk of harm; we need to act.” You can legitimately disagree with him on whether all unsanctioned encampments are dangerous, and you can find fault with him for making a making a broad statement about the imperative to get everyone off the street when we don’t have the resources to do that and some of them wouldn’t come in off the street anyway. But I’ve never got the sense from him that he wants to criminalize homelessness and just sweep people. And he was a strong supporter last fall for funding programs for the homeless (just not Sawant’s notion of pulling money out of the rainy day fund — and given what just happened to state revenues, we may be needing that rainy day fund to balance the city budget sooner than anyone thought). I think in practice, O’Brien and Burgess are not that far apart in their philosophies on this issue — they are just choosing to talk about different parts of it and at this point O’Brien is more willing to get toilets and dumpsters in there quickly independent of all other factors. Sawant seems 100% in favor of setting up toilets and dumpsters; I think O’Brien, Bagshaw and Herbold are 90% there but realize it’s not a no-brainer. Burgess and Harrell I suspect are about 50% there with more worries about whether in the long run it entrenches the jungle in place more solidly; and Johnson, Juarez and Gonzalez are probably somewhere in between and suffering from insomnia as they wonder what they’ve gotten themselves into by running for public office — if I were in their shoes, I’d be feeling the impostor syndrome right now.

    And yeah, I’m guessing about some of this. I could be totally wrong.

  3. Mike O’Brien should ask himself whether the city’s policies towards street people don’t have a little something to do with this situation as well. Many jungle residents once lived in sanctioned tent camps (i.e., Nickelsville) but were ejected for drugs or problem behaviors. Or just because the camp boss didn’t like them. These Nickelsville cast-offs frequently end up living close to the camps because they have friends still in the camps or because they have nowhere else to go. Nickelsville gets people off the streets temporarily but it gets very few people into housing and people who leave camp often end up right back on the streets. (I’ve known a few cases like this.)
    I believe Nickelsville is acting as a draw for homeless people from surrounding cities, and even other states. If the City imposed accountability on the camp operators and started requiring them to take a census of people to see where they’re coming from, I believe that would be borne out. But the City is not doing any such thing. Nor do they impose any expectation on camp operators to encourage homeless residents to get into drug treatment, mental health treatment, job training, and so on. So ultimately the camps are more like warehouses for homeless, a small step above being on the street.
    Read more here:

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