In the wake of January’s horrific shootings, The Jungle has become the subject of a lot of scrutiny. Mayor Ed Murray, a smattering of Seattle City Councilmembers and a mess of reporters have made pilgrimages there in the past month. In response to the shootings, Murray directed city staff to create a report on living conditions in The Jungle. It was released on Feb. 17.
The report describes the sprawling system of camps, located along the support pillars that lift Interstate 5 and along the greenbelt abutting the area, as “lawless,” “dangerous” and “unsanitary.”
Media reports prominently feature denizens of The Jungle who refuse to leave. The city’s assessment said the area is host to frequent drug dealing. However, some of The Jungle’s residents say they’re not there to smoke meth. They’re there because they have constraints that prevent them from accessing the shelter system.
“My husband has been eight years clean off of crack. I’m eight years clean off of meth,” said Cheryl Oliver, who lives in a small tent in the southern half of The Jungle. She lives with her husband, son and three service dogs. “Not everybody down here is a drug addict like they say we are. We’re just trying to get back on our feet.”
The reason Oliver and her family resorted to The Jungle was because of their family situation. Her son is 27, too old to stay with her in a family shelter. The dogs, who they consider to be part of the family, are also an issue.
She can’t give up her service dog, she says. He is trained as a diabetic response dog and she depends on him to alert her to episodes of hypoglycemia. The other two service dogs are pitbull mixes. She believes that people fear the breed and says that she’s been denied residency in sanctioned tent cities because of that. Currently, unauthorized encampments such as The Jungle are the only places where a family with adult children and a couple of pitbulls can stay together, she said.
Jerry, who asked that his last name be withheld, is a homeless veteran who recently lived in The Jungle and had experienced many of the same difficulties with shelter that Oliver’s family faced. He too had a service dog, albeit a tiny and very well-behaved one. Despite his docile dog, Jerry said that he’d had many issues with shelters because of his canine companion, who is trained to help him through flashbacks from PTSD.
When he first found a shelter that allowed service animals, he said, he was told that the shelter didn’t allow dogs before he was even allowed to produce the pooch’s papers. When he pointed out the sign next to the staffer’s head stating that service animals were welcome, and produced the required documentation, it didn’t exactly go over well with the staffer.
“He looked like an asshole in front of everybody that he sees every day,” said Jerry. “From that day forward, he was always trying to make it hard on me.” In addition to that bad blood, he said, Jerry complained that the shelters he’d stayed in didn’t offer anywhere to store his things, and that navigating the city with a dog, a heavy backpack and his winter coats was challenging. He added that the early curfews and early check-out times at shelters were impossibly difficult, and had ruinous effects on his sleep schedule.
After a frustrating few months trying out the city’s various service-dog-friendly shelters, he met a long-time Jungle resident who invited him into the camp, and decided to give it a go. The first night he spent in The Jungle, he said, was the first night of good sleep he’d had in awhile.
“I was very tired from walking around all the time,” he said. “My body was drained. So I slept for almost a day. No one bothered me! We were warm, I had a sleeping bag, I just curled up and recovered a bit.”
Both Oliver and Jerry agreed that The Jungle was far from their first choice. Both acknowledged that safety was a major concern and drug activity was commonplace. Jerry even said he’d been forced to pull a knife on an intruder to defend himself, as he has no phone to call the police. Even if he did own a phone, he has no faith that police would even come.
Though both campers are drug free, they said that they were regularly solicited by strangers who came looking for drugs. Both complained of having to navigate around needles and of having to go to the bathroom in the midst of sharp rocks and biohazards.
But, they both said, they still felt safer than in the shelter system. Oliver said that people in the shelters would try to steal her things whenever she’d left them for even a moment.
She’d lost valuables to theft, including her diabetes medications. The Jungle, they both said, was a vast improvement in security over the city’s shelter system.
“When I’m not here you look after my tent and I’ll look after yours,” Jerry said. “The first thing you do is you get that bond with someone.” Oliver said the family takes turns staying home and watching their compound. Both said that being able to leave their things somewhere was crucial.
“How important would it be to you to not have to take your entire wardrobe with you every time you went to work?” he asked. “And not only your entire wardrobe, but everything your dog owns, everything you own, everything valuable that makes you you: your valuables, your phone, whatever. Everything you have that makes you you, you have to have it with you at all times, and then you have to protect it because people want to take that. Imagine eating or going to the restroom — things we take for granted. Imagine carrying a plate and a soda with this dog. It’s very important to be able to leave your stuff.”
After a short time in The Jungle, Jerry got wind of a transitional housing opportunity via the Low Income Housing Institute. He “hustled” to get approved, and on Feb. 25, he passed a background check, which all but guaranteed him the apartment. Shelters, he said, hadn’t worked, but housing did. Oliver, too, saw housing — not shelters — as the key to getting out of The Jungle.
“To be honest with you, if somebody came to me and said, ‘I have an apartment for you and your son, and your dogs are welcome,’ I’m in,” she said. “I would move in a heartbeat if they came and they offered us someplace we could stay together.”