The shooting in “The Jungle” is partly society’s fault.
COLLECTIVE apathy has allowed the squalid homeless camp known as The Jungle to fester in the middle of Seattle. Utter lawlessness. Absent sanitation. And, as we’ve learned this week, a home to kids.
The three teenage brothers accused in the Jan. 26 shooting in The Jungle now deserve the presumption of innocence. But they also deserved a more functional human-services safety net.
The brothers — ages 13, 16 and 17 — are foster children. King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg disclosed that they were on the run from their foster homes. Their father, a methamphetamine dealer, is in prison. Their mother’s parental rights were terminated. Yet they are now alleged to have collected on a $500 drug debt owed to their mother.
Young and homeless
Read The Seattle Times Opinion project exploring the plight of homeless youths and proposing solutions: bit.ly/youth-homeless
It is easy to shake your head, mutter about awful parenting and wilding youth, and flip to the next page of the newspaper. Fair enough. But such stories are also the products of failing public policies and public investments. This is what we pay for.
As documented in a recent Seattle Times Opinion project on youth homelessness, Washington’s foster-care system for youths like these brothers is a mess. Abused and neglected youths are routinely put up overnight in hotels — their social workers awake in the room — because Washington has a gross shortage of options for kids with behavioral problems.
Despite 12 years of court oversight of the foster-care system, the state still has a poor record of finding foster kids when they run away. The state has yet to meet agreed-upon benchmarks, so that legal case, known as the Braam settlement, continues.
No wonder the stretched-thin foster-care system produces poor results. A state Department of Social and Health Services internal study last year showed that an appalling 47 percent of African-American foster kids in King County are homeless within a year of leaving state custody. On-time graduation rates for foster kids are as low as 45 percent.
The Times’ editorial series also showed how programs to intervene with kids on the run were hollowed out by the Great Recession and funding was not restored. The opportunities for intervention — in homeless shelters and in Crisis Residential Centers — are both scant and so poorly funded that these youths are effectively being warehoused.
Those deficits are compounded by an inattention to prevention. A state-run program called Family Preservation Services used to offer in-home counseling as a means to avoid foster care, but it was cut severely. DSHS didn’t prioritize it for restoration, and so social workers stopped going into homes.
The Legislature is now considering restoration of most of these cuts, as well as thoughtful policy changes that would empower schools to more aggressively intervene with homeless students and chronic truants. Speaker of the House Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, says he has made these changes a priority. The Republican-led Senate should as well.
The three brothers accused of the shooting of five people, two of whom died, were so familiar with The Jungle that they easily moved among the fetid tents, stolen bikes and overgrown forest on the slopes of Beacon Hill.
We can point fingers at absent parents, at the familiar return of a heroin epidemic, at government entities that tolerated these conditions within view of two $500 million sports stadiums.
These are the products of our civic choices and priorities. We can do better.