A horrific shooting Jan. 26 in The Jungle, a notoriously dangerous area of homeless encampments in the greenbelt between SoDo and Beacon Hill, has reignited the debate around the city’s policies on homelessness. The shooting comes on the heels of the deadliest year on record for people living outside, with 66 deaths, according to Women in Black, an organization that tracks the number of deaths and holds vigils for the deceased.
Five residents of an unsanctioned tent encampment were shot — allegedly over “low-level drug dealing,” according to Seattle Police Department Chief Kathleen O’Toole — and two of them died. The shooting occurred just before Mayor Ed Murray gave a televized speech on homelessness at Mary’s Place shelter. Murray visited the crime scene and wondered aloud,
“Did I act too late?”
The next day, at a press conference in Seattle City Hall, the Mayor defended his approach to homelessness, saying, “I hear from some advocates, and some on the council that we are not doing enough … Their other claims have been that we are trying to conduct inhumane sweeps, where all we do is force people out of unauthorized encampments. As I said last night and I will say again, that is simply not true.”
The mayor has come under criticism for continuing to conduct cleanups of unauthorized homeless tent encampments that many advocates say make life more dangerous and difficult for homeless people, despite declaring a state of emergency over the homelessness crisis. A recent post on the Homeless Remembrance Project’s Facebook page praised the mayor for ushering in sanctioned tent encampments but also took him to task for the sweeps.
“In the midst of this tragedy, in a recognized State of Emergency, the City of Seattle has done courageous, important, good work, including supporting new sanctioned encampments on City land,” the statement read, adding that the city is doing record numbers of cleanups of homeless encampments. “We call on the City, the County, and the State of Washington to stop destroying the little safety people have found for themselves in pop-up camps all over our region.”
Sleeping outdoors puts homeless people at risk and many die for a variety of reasons. Women in Black stands vigil for homeless people who have died, including for 66 people in 2015, the highest number in the group’s 16-year history. Eleven of the deaths were violent, including five homicides of women. The group bases its information on reports from the King County Medical Examiner. In 2014, the group held vigils for 45 people. The two people who died in the encampment shooting will be among the first mourned in 2016.
Murray counters that the city has offered outreach—in the form of shelter, medical aid, mental health treatment, addiction services, and general financial aid—to everyone affected by the sweeps. He added that many campers refused aid, citing drug addiction and mental health issues as the cause.
The recent shooting has brought the issue of homeless people’s safety to the fore, and many advocates worry that the city’s encampment cleanups serve only to push the homeless into more dangerous areas, like The Jungle.
Bill Kirlin-Hackett, director of the Interfaith Task Force on Homelessness, said The Jungle is often the last resort for homeless people.
“The sweeps seem to be targeting those that are visible and easy to find, and in some cases places that there’s really no great reason to be sweeping them except to clean up the camp,” he said.
Indeed, one resident of the unauthorized encampment at Airport Way South and Royal Brougham Way, a man who identified himself as Jeremy said that he’d decided to pack up and leave before the shooting. The city had posted a 72-hour notice that the area would be cleared. He very nearly went deeper into The Jungle. Something spooked him at the last minute, he said, and he relocated instead to the green patch across from the BMW dealership on Seventh Avenue South and Airport Way South.
“We got ‘72ed’ over there. I just moved. I was supposed to go into The Jungle the night the killings happened,” Jeremy said. “My street dad Chino invited me up there. [My girlfriend] was still with me, I said, ‘You know, something about that ain’t right and I don’t wanna go up there.’ So I moved to BMW.”
Larry Brinegar, a former resident of the Airport Way South sites, said that he preferred camping there to the forested areas of The Jungle, specifically for safety reasons.
“I didn’t get messed with,” he said. “More light, more traffic. People who do that shit usually don’t like to be seen.”
Though Jeremy managed to avoid The Jungle, the BMW site was also the target of a scheduled cleanup on Jan 28. Jeremy and another resident named Cowboy Bill said that he never received a visit from outreach workers and never received any information about services.
Human Services Director Catherine Lester said that cleanups at the Airport Way sites were driven by community complaints.
“We’re getting pushed out,” Jeremy said. “They call the complaints and we just keep getting ousted further and further.”
The city has not previously scheduled a cleanup for The Jungle, though it has existed as a popular campsite for more than a decade. The mayor cited the area’s dangers for outreach workers and the increased expense of police escorts as barriers to cleanups at the site. In the wake of the shooting, the city plans to perform an assessment of the area, conducting a survey of the conditions and meeting with residents to discuss their needs.
Kirlin-Hackett was frustrated that this approach was being taken in a particularly troubled area after a particularly horrific crime, instead of at all unsanctioned encampments.
“They could have been doing that with all these encampments but they’re just starting to do it now,” he said. “The city is figuring it out while they move here. In the meantime, they’re sweeping camps.”
At 9 a.m. on Jan 27, the city conducted the previously planned cleanup at the Royal Brougham site that Jeremy had been fleeing. Jeremy was not around to receive services. He packed up early and left because he has an old outstanding warrant for skipping out on probation. Out of the residents of 11 remaining tents, one accepted medical services. None made alternative housing arrangements, Lester said. The campers spent their morning stuffing possessions into black plastic bags, which they loaded into shopping carts and pushed off in search of alternate sites.
The next day, another sweep was planned, this time at Seventh Avenue South and Royal Brougham. Jeremy, who had relocated there two days prior, said he wasn’t prepared. He came back to the site only to discover that the sweep was already underway. Other residents claimed his scooter and rainfly during the cleanup. He was afraid to interact with law enforcement officers present at the cleanup, so he left without his possessions.
The city saves unclaimed possessions that appear to be over $100 in value, or of significant importance to the owner, according to the city’s 2008 written cleanup procedures. Advocates worry that things that might not seem essential to city employees conducting the sweeps are getting tossed in the trash pile.
“Anything valued less than $100 could be disposed of,” said Sharon Lee, executive director of the Low Income Housing Institute. “Just think of all the things valued less than $100: hats, gloves, underwear, sleeping bags, etc.”
“Everything I had was taken,” Jeremy said, but he wasn’t worried about his tent, sleeping bag, or even his scooter. Instead, he worried about an item with purely sentimental value: a wooden firetruck toy he’d saved for his newborn daughter.
The Seattle City Council’s Human Services and Public Health committee will meet Feb. 10 at 2 p.m. to discuss the city’s sweeps procedures.