Fences and barriers are not the answer. What works are efforts to treat addiction, provide mental-health services and alternative housing options, immediate assistance to families and children, and improved security and sanitation at temporary shelters and tent cities.
The growing crisis of homelessness in our region is larger than the reach of a single solution, implementation of a single strategy, or responsibility of a single elected official or human-services provider. It’s a shared crisis rooted in interrelated problems of poverty, addiction and mental illness. It is larger than a single city, region or state.
I applaud Gov. Jay Inslee, King County Executive Dow Constantine, Mayor Ed Murray, and my colleagues on the Seattle City Council and our allies in Olympia for working on an array of efforts to address homelessness in a way that is smart, humane and focused on both short- and long-term gains.
What we know is that there is no perfect policy or solution. But we also know some tools work better than others to ease the individual, family and community impacts of homelessness. What works are efforts to treat addiction, increase mental-health services, transition people into various available alternative housing options, provide immediate assistance to families and children, and improve security and sanitation at temporary shelters and tent cities.
What doesn’t work are fences and barriers.
Make no mistake, The Jungle along Interstate 5 is a deplorable setting that must be addressed. For decades, it has been a too-conveniently overlooked area of state land along a federal highway bordering Beacon Hill, a neighborhood that lacks the political power of other more affluent parts of our city.
Now is the time to address The Jungle. But our first proposed solution to a decades-old problem should not be, “Build a fence around it.”
I believe erecting an 8,000-foot fence topped with razor wire to simply try and prevent access to the area is wrong for several reasons. Furthermore, these shortcomings indeed can be illustrated by the equally ill-conceived and equally crime-ridden fence currently along parts of the U.S.-Mexican border.
First, fences can be cut, dug under and breached. Daily we see stories of human and drug trafficking along the U.S. border — and that is a fence line patrolled constantly, at a cost of tens of millions to taxpayers.
Second, if people — through habit, addiction or necessity — believe The Jungle to be their haven, human-services experts believe they would return to the area, possibly with even worse safety outcomes. This is also true of the U.S. border fence, where the barrier creates an artificial magnet for crime and tragedy, not a deterrent.
To draw this connection is not an attempt to draw local leaders into a debate over failed immigration policy, but a reminder of the unintended human consequences of these policies. Just like the problems in The Jungle are decades old, so too are the failures of our immigration policy. These are inherited crises that require new ideas and new leadership to make real progress.
My parents escaped poverty in Mexico, crossing that same border at great risk to settle in Washington and set to work picking fruit all for the goal of providing a better life for their future children and grandchildren. Their courage and the support of others helped provide my siblings and me the opportunity to succeed and lend our voices to important issues. I feel passionately that when we remove barriers, provide support and focus on long-term outcomes, we can overcome even the most intractable challenge.
Seattle is a compassionate, progressive city with equally compassionate and progressive leaders. We need dollars, ideas and policy solutions that lift people out of homelessness. We don’t need to erect barriers to real progress.