At a City Hall summit on homelessness, city officials and social-service providers seemed put off at the idea of closing the infamous encampment known as The Jungle. But it’s far more cruel to leave it open.
When King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg called for an end to the illegal homeless encampment known as “The Jungle,” he was undoubtedly figuring the recent double murder there would be the ghastly catalyst needed to finally get the city and the state to act.
“The conditions that first responders have found, the conditions that we’ve known about for a long time, would be appalling to most citizens,” Satterberg said.
“It’s time to envision a Seattle without The Jungle. It’s time to shut it down.”
Not at City Hall it isn’t.
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On Friday, 10 days after five people were shot in an apparent drug deal gone bad, city officials and various nonprofit groups met at City Hall to talk about what to do about the city’s homelessness emergency. They seemed bizarrely put off at the idea of shutting The Jungle to homeless access.
One talked of The Jungle’s “sense of community.” Another said some Jungle inhabitants would be worse off if they were uprooted. Others said it was stigmatizing to even call it The Jungle, preferring “Beacon Hill greenbelt.”
Instead, ideas for aiding The Jungle ranged from putting lockers under the freeway so the homeless could store their belongings, to providing encampments with bins for used hypodermic needles.
It was at this mention of needle bins that Dustin Davies and Angel Johnson couldn’t take it anymore. They burst into incredulous laughter and left the council chambers.
Davies was an alcoholic and meth addict who was homeless until 19 months ago. Johnson was a drug addict and prostitute who has been sober 12 years. In recovery, both have been helping the homeless through charity groups.
They came to the meeting to say that the very worst thing you could do for the denizens of The Jungle is keep it open. That the idea was even discussed seemed crazy to them.
“What occurred here at City Hall was just a lot of enabling,” Davies said. “All I heard was, ‘Let’s continue to sensitively support people in their current lifestyles.’ ”
Davies said when he was homeless, he slept on the streets or crashed at a Capitol Hill sex club that rented rooms for $14. His main problem was drugs.
“Everybody asks, ‘Why is homelessness getting so bad around here?’ ” he said. “I guarantee you it comes back to the heroin epidemic. But that’s the one thing they didn’t talk about in there.”
The idea of putting needle bins in The Jungle or any other encampment is ludicrous, they said.
“The reason most people are in The Jungle is drugs,” Davies said. “Why else would you subject yourself to that environment?”
Said Johnson: “They need to get people out of there, not coddle them. They need treatment. I can’t believe they were talking about leaving them there.”
The city’s legitimate predicament is that if it forces people out of The Jungle, it wants to be able to refer them to safer places. That’s why there’s been so much focus on opening emergency tent sites and shelters. I suspect these two formerly homeless folks are right, as well — ramping up drug treatment programs is key.
At the same time, the city is so twisted into knots about the notion of criminalizing poverty that it has become numb to the obvious. Which is that The Jungle is a humanitarian disaster.
In the past year, a homeless man burned to death in his tent there, and a woman was shot to death by a man in a mask. Satterberg, the prosecutor, spoke of his office dealing with multiple drug crimes and sexual assaults at the trail-filled hillside.
Yet right now, it appears Seattle may let it go on. Out of compassion.
Instead of rebranding it as the Beacon Hill greenbelt, it should have been cleared already. Its inhabitants could be referred to what services are available, or in some cases arrested, then offered treatment through the criminal-justice system.
This is not a heartless thing to do. Look at the enduring record of this place. As Satterberg put it, The Jungle is “worse than Third World conditions.”
Leaving it there — what Seattle has been mostly doing for decades — is what’s truly cruel.