Natural disasters are fast and binary. There is a “before” and “after” an earthquake or hurricane in which every person is connected by mutual struggle. If either was to strike Seattle tomorrow leaving thousands without food or shelter, the city’s “state of emergency” would look different.
Displaced people would occupy public and private spaces. Tents would be considered adequate, but temporary, shelter. Access to meals and other resources would be given based on need rather than sobriety.
People would be considered victims of circumstance rather than agents of their own destruction, and rescue workers would come with open hands rather than handcuffs.
That’s not the response to the public health crisis in The Jungle, euphemistically renamed the “East Duwamish Greenbelt” just as the dispatch of bulldozers and cleanup crews predicated on the removal of everyone in the area has been called “not a sweep.”
“Emergency declarations are associated with natural disasters, but the persistent and growing phenomenon of homelessness — here and nationwide — is a human-made crisis just as devastating to thousands as a flood or fire,” County Executive Dow Constantine said of the county’s plan to declare an emergency on homelessness.
A hurricane destroys in moments. The rise of homelessness looks more like erosion. It has been slow, gradual and easy to mask with one-time solutions and stopgap measures that had the appeal of incisive action but were not intended to address the systemic inadequacies built over decades.
Our institutions have failed us, and not for the first time. The Jungle over the past 20 years has paralleled the entrenchment of policies and processes that have brought us repeatedly to this point, a cycle that seems certain to repeat itself unless we decide to make this time different.
Welcome to The Jungle
On May 17, Mayor Ed Murray and Washington Governor Jay Inslee announced their plan to clean out The Jungle.
The strategy was simple: Give private outreach teams the authority to offer shelter beds bolstered with $100,000 in hotel vouchers, bus tickets and other services to move an unknown number of people out of a dangerous situation in two weeks.
Never mind that similar outreach workers, including others sent from the Union Gospel Mission, have not accomplished that over years of outreach. Never mind that city officials cite their past efforts as qualifications for their current role.
The announcement seemed abrupt, even hasty. The mayor’s own staff didn’t know where the press conference that he purportedly approved was being held. Members of the City Council reported that they had not been consulted about the plan prior to its announcement. Residents of The Jungle protested and listed their own demands, most poignantly the right to survive on their own terms.
Murray threw another presser at 11 a.m. on May 24, coincidentally announced in conjunction with the release of the Human Services & Public Health committee agenda that listed The Jungle response as a topic of discussion.
He reframed the two-week timeline as a period of “intensive” outreach rather than a deadline for removal, but maintained that residents would have to leave prior to cleanup. He rejected the term “sweep,” and used the phrase “person-centered approach” so often that it lost all meaning.
The quote from his drafted statement that caught the attention of this and almost every other news outlet in Seattle: “We’re making this up as we go along.”
Except they’re not.
In early March, two and a half months prior to the announcement of the plan to sweep The Jungle, Mark Putnam, the director of All Home King County, participated in a presentation titled “Homelessness as a State of Emergency” to the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
The presentation outlined the trend of cities declaring emergencies over the last year. The presentation’s PowerPoint mentioned a plan to work with Inslee on “securing encampments” on Washington State Department of Transportation Land.
That is a direct reference to The Jungle, Putnam confirmed in May.
And who’s surprised? As Casey Jaywork pointed out in Seattle Weekly, Jungle sweeps constitute a key part of Seattle’s homeless playbook, with similar actions taking place in 1994, 1998 and 2003.
Whatever Murray says, this is “business as usual” at a time when Seattle officials have talked an innovative ground game attacking not just one aspect of the Gordian knot of homelessness, but several: affordable housing, racial equity, worker protections, early childhood education and more.
To their credit, the City Council and mayor took action at the 11th hour. A resolution introduced at the May 31 Council Briefing for a vote less than five hours later threw a spanner into the allegedly fluid strategy. It required that outreach workers prove that they had tried to contact “each Individual living in the Greenbelt” and make “meaningful offers” of shelter that accounted for each person’s circumstances — their eviction record, criminal history, mental health issues, etc.
It also stated that the mayor come to the City Council with that documentation and information about the number of people left in the area at least three business days prior to a sweep of the location.
What it suggests is that the state of emergency — the policy that was supposed to free up resources and cut down red tape to give government the flexibility to create those progressive solutions — became a mechanism for more of the same.
Our systems have calcified over the course of decades, and if scholarly research on development suggests anything, it’s that institutions matter and are difficult to change.
The problem is, we’re trying to build a life raft out of the boat we’re already in, and destruction is considerably faster than creation.
The losing battle
June 2 marks seven months since Murray and Constantine declared the state of emergency.
In that time, the city and county have done good work to address the myriad ways that government can influence economic development and, by proxy, homelessness in Seattle and King County: Pilot programs have been launched to address trash build-up near homeless encampments, the Homeless Management Information System database has been moved to the county level to improve systems and departments are looking at the vast amount of data they have to try to find ways to improve service delivery.
The City Council has devoted months to the review of policies around people experiencing homelessness, from conversations about safe consumption areas to instituting 24-hour shelters to provide better care to those who want to come inside.
Seattleites will vote on a massive affordable housing package in August that would put $290 million into the creation and preservation of permanent shelter for low-income people, and the Sound Transit 3 proposal would back that up with space to build and public transit-centered ways to help people get around.
The problem is that these pieces are slow and until there is a seismic shift in how this city addresses homelessness, it’s pitting good intentions against systemic operations.
That is a losing battle.
Consider: the Scofflaw Mitigation Team, a dynamic duo that the police call to help homeless individuals living in vehicles so that they don’t have to enforce the law; shelters that kick people out at the crack of dawn, or refuse entry because of a beloved pet; zoning policies that prevent the creation of new housing; the rejection of alternatives to shelter such as additional tent encampments or hygiene such as portable toilets, dumpsters or containers for used hypodermic needles.
The Jungle has made headlines over the past several weeks because it is a very visible reminder of these failures to give people alternatives to living under a freeway.
The sweep — which is the appropriate term, Mayor Murray — is either the dead canary that motivates us to leave an increasingly toxic coal mine or a raised middle finger to the notion that the positive rhetoric about reform has any meaning whatsoever.