Closing down the homeless encampment known as The Jungle — a three-mile stretch of trash and dirt and freeway pillars that has been home for decades to thousands of homeless people — seems like common sense.
The arguments are familiar. The Jungle is a place of filth, disease and violence. Anywhere would be better.
Since 1994, city officials have tried to shut down the encampment four times.
Despite the overflowing shelters. Despite the radically rising numbers of unsheltered homeless people. Despite the failures of Washington state to fund mental health services or drug treatment.
And each time, the same thing has happened. After all the trash removal and hazmat suits and tossing of tents and handwringing over our public shame, homeless people return. Because where else are they going to go?
Living in shelter means being in line early for a bed that opens at 7:30 p.m. and living in lockdown until you’re booted to the street before dawn.
Emergency shelter often means bed bugs and lice and bad sleep in a room that’s always too noisy. It means a mat on the floor, two feet from the next person over. It means always being tired.
It means leaving partners and pets behind. It means carrying your belongings everywhere, because you can’t leave them behind and no one has your back.
There are open beds here and there, but for every three homeless people in Seattle, at least one takes their chances outside.
The Jungle is the end result of decades of public policy failure. And yet, The Jungle serves a purpose.
It is isolated, but within walking distance of human services. The freeways offer overhead protection against the elements. There are neighborhoods where people have self-organized to meet their needs.
Sweeping homeless encampments means ignoring the choices poor people make and declaring an ongoing guerrilla war that is destined to fail.
Fences can be cut. Patrols can be evaded. New, more out-of-the-way places to camp will be found. A Jungle clearance strategy is more about displacement than helping.
We know better. When Downtown Emergency Service Center (DESC) opened wet housing for chronic alcoholics at 1811 Eastlake, it focused on the toughest cases.
DESC made a list of street alcoholics, many of whom they had known for years, and began with the most at risk and vulnerable. Turns out, when you offer appropriate services to even the most chronically homeless people, they nearly always say yes.
None of this is to say The Jungle should be left as is, or that people there don’t deserve better. Despite all the official attention to The Jungle in recent months, piles of trash remain everywhere. The message here is, “Live in filth. We don’t care. Maybe we’ll clean up after you’re gone.”
Real answers to The Jungle begin with supporting human dignity through harm reduction.
Dumpsters and better access for service vehicles and trucks are obvious steps. Portable toilets and other sanitation facilities would additionally address hygiene.
Sharps containers, condoms and public health outreach would reduce the risk of infection and disease.
Appropriate lighting and emergency phone stations would improve safety.
Blankets, socks and medicine and food carried by outreach workers would help create the relationships people need to risk change. Most people in The Jungle want to be somewhere else, but until then, they need to be somewhere.
It’s time for a new common sense on The Jungle.
One that makes people’s lives better and not worse.
The political failure that built The Jungle is the shame of Seattle. Let’s be done with blaming the victims and see what we can actually do to help.