Near Seattle’s notorious Jungle tent encampment, there’s a 100-bed homeless rehab center. But it’s got empty beds — and hasn’t been full for months. How can this be?
In the debate about Seattle’s homelessness emergency, city officials have said repeatedly that the reason so many people are sleeping on the streets is that the network of shelters and beds for the indigent is overflowing.
This talk drives Tim Rockey crazy.
“I’ve got empty beds,” he says. “We haven’t been full since … since I can’t remember when.”
Rockey runs a residential rehab center for adult men and women in the Sodo neighborhood for the Salvation Army. His 100-bed facility on Fourth Avenue South and another Salvation Army shelter off Dearborn are the two closest help facilities to The Jungle, the illegal encampment under I-5 that saw a mass shooting last month.
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But he isn’t full. Despite an estimated 400 people in The Jungle, and dozens more tents and cardboard structures I counted in the two-block area around Rockey’s office near the football and baseball stadiums, he’s still got empty beds every night.
“We range between about 60 to 70 percent full, up to 90 percent in the coldest months,” he said. “It used to be unheard of to have any vacancies.”
How can this be? How can a homeless rehab center next to the city’s most notorious encampment have 10 to 30 empty beds?
Last weekend, an outreach team from the shelter took dry socks and offers of help to people camped on the streets, including in parts of The Jungle. They contacted 80 people, offering a free six-month stay at the shelter, food and clothes included, if they work to get sober and volunteer in the Salvation Army’s thrift-store operation.
“We didn’t get a single taker,” Rockey says. “It’s like that every week. They’d rather stay in The Jungle.”
Now some of this may be because the Salvation Army has rules you have to follow. There’s a basic dress code. You have to work. It also provides addiction counseling and a spiritual component, through chapel services. But Rockey says they take anyone, of any belief system.
The Salvation Army is convinced its beds are going empty in part due to Seattle’s permissive attitude toward letting people sleep on the streets.
“Anything is better than The Jungle,” says Tammy Killingsworth, an assistant resident manager at the shelter. “But as terrible as it may seem from the outside, people can get comfortable wherever they are.”
Killingsworth was homeless for three years. She camped downtown on benches or above Golden Gardens Park. Once she considered camping in The Jungle but left because she found it terrifying.
“Most homeless people know to stay away from there,” she says.
Once hunkered down there, though, it’s hard to move out, unless someone or something forces you to, she said.
The news that Seattle is considering extending services to The Jungle — providing garbage collection, restrooms and possibly plumbing — struck Rockey as “insane.”
“That will make it more of a draw,” Rockey said. “It will probably mean fewer people here in our beds. That Seattle is going to say, ‘Yes, you can live in tents and boxes under the freeway,’ it’s beyond insane. It’s inhuman.”
Seriously, Seattle, this is reaching the point of delusional. Five people were shot in this encampment a month ago. Since then, 11 city and state agencies concluded it’s a Third-World, public-health disaster. Yet our short-term response may be to put up port-a-potties and handwash stations — in essence authorizing the encampment.
Meanwhile, a homeless center a few blocks away has empty beds.
The city’s task is extraordinarily complex, says Rockey, who has worked with homelessness and addiction for decades. There’s too many people in The Jungle to move them out all at once. It won’t lend itself to easy answers.
“Take 25 at a time and say to them, ‘Here are your menu of options, from emergency shelter to tent cities to recovery centers like ours, to jail if you have warrants,’ ” he said. “Some may choose to set up a tent elsewhere … But if we have any dignity as a city, none of the options should be, ‘You can keep on in The Jungle.’ ”
This has become a test of Seattle’s well-meaning liberal project. Can it function to address this real-world problem? It’s true it’s an especially hard test. But right now we’re failing.