What if wraparound services had intervened in the lives of the three brothers — years before they were accused of killing two others in the Jungle?

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EXPERIENCES — good or bad — shape the brain. Understanding this gives us a framework to tackle root causes of crises and homelessness, and prevent tragedies from happening

The recent shootings beneath Interstate 5, in an area known as The Jungle, shook our city. Three hospitalized, two dead. Then came the arrests: three teenagers living in tents near Safeco Field.

The news since has focused on the scene of the attack — 3 miles of homeless camps tucked under I-5 — and whether or not to clear it out and fence it off.

Not really discussed are the accused: Three brothers, 17, 16 and 13 years old.

Children often lose their future when they lose their street address. Add in drugs, violence and family instability, and the scale tilts toward tragedy.

But imagine for a minute, what if? What if we coupled logistics of finding homes for people with an emphasis on supporting families, specifically on building their well-being?

There is a lot about these brothers that we don’t know, and their cases haven’t gone to trial. But we know their lives were touched by poverty and drugs — their father is in prison, and their mother accused him of threatening to kill her.

We also know that when they get timely support, families dealing with these issues can stabilize, move through trauma and go on to thrive.

Which begs the question, what if?

Who we are is dictated by our relationship and connection to the world.

This isn’t a philosophical argument; it’s the essence of brain science. Positive or negative, what happens in our lives shapes us: our ability to empathize and make friends, to plan and organize, and our physical and mental health.

All of these loop back to our brain and its basic architecture.

As infants, we start with a blueprint — our genes — and simple brain circuits. From there, experiences influence how or whether those genes will be expressed. Basic back and forth between parent and child shapes the complex circuitry that evolves. The brain connections we make and strengthen as young children build the foundation for future learning, health and behavior.

Generally positive experiences lead to healthy development.

But homelessness, violence and drugs? Those adverse experiences can stunt foundational areas of the brain, even dictate how parts of the brain work together. Toxic stress, coupled with poor interactions, means children start life with a weak foundation. This affects everything that comes after.

One of the most dramatic impacts is on executive functioning — that is, our ability to organize and act on information, to regulate impulses, plan ahead, remember things, prioritize and pay attention.

These skills play a pivotal role in success in school, parenting and managing day-to-day adult life.

So what if, years ago, these brothers had been wrapped in support?

People with a history of abuse can learn how to nurture healthy and safe relationships.

Parents can learn how to strengthen attachment skills. These in turn build the bonds that enable that crucial back and forth that their children’s developing brains need.

And what if the brothers had been enrolled in trauma-informed early learning? Play therapy helps children manage behavior and emotions and build relationships that will help them cultivate resilience.

For these brothers, a destructive cycle is playing out. Two people have died, and the loss and violence have sent shock waves through our region. But imagine, “What if?” and play it forward.

Right now, in King County, there are close to 2,200 children and teens, 17 and younger, who are living in homelessness. What if we tipped the scales the other way? Toward a healthy future?

Positive experience. Responsive relationships. Stable lives. We actually can make a difference.