Despite drugs, rats and bursts of violence, some residents of The Jungle don’t want to leave the Seattle homeless encampment. Even two people wounded in a January shooting have returned, suggesting the challenges the city faces in cleaning up the camp.
The Jungle seemed sleepier on a recent Friday night than some Seattle neighborhoods. Most of the homeless encampment’s residents were tucked into their tents or gathered in small groups.
But for the cars punishing Interstate 5 above, the loudest sound you might have heard was a video-game explosion from the tent of Cheryl Oliver and family.
The games calm the anxieties of her husband and son, said Oliver, 48. The family has lived in The Jungle for more than a year, along with their three dogs and an iguana.
Some residents, like Oliver, want stable housing. But they face some mix of obstacles because of mental health, addiction, poverty and criminal backgrounds.
Others want to stay. Even two people wounded in a murderous January shooting have returned to The Jungle. Despite their scars and lookouts they now post, they describe it as the place they feel most comfortable.
“We accept each other, no matter what wrong we’re doing. And that’s what this community is all about,” said a woman wounded in the shooting.
City Hall’s talk of an impending cleanup, and possible evictions, is complicated by public hand-wringing over what’s compassionate, what’s permissive and what’s possible. The task is made more daunting by the Jungle’s vast constellation of chaotic lives and camps sprawling over 150 acres, about the size of the West Seattle Golf Course. A tally by outreach workers last month counted 336 people in 201 tents and structures.
Some tents stand alone, others in clusters. Some sites are trashy, others raked clean. You might even see a car peeking through a tarp-flap. Or a shotgun next to a soft-spoken camper.
A few shambolic abodes try to replicate suburbia and bring a dose of order to chaos. On a recent night, Melissa Fasano was picking up litter outside the wood hut she shares with her boyfriend, Butch. She wore gloves and a green dress.
From their camp you could almost touch the cars rolling by on southbound I-5. “That’s what motivates me,” said Fasano, 37. “We could live like them.”
Underneath the freeway, where Fasano stooped, is a dark three-tiered expanse of campers, garbage heaps and brazen rats called “the Caves.” It stretches from near Interstate 90 in Sodo all the way to the edge of Georgetown.
East of the Caves is the forested area sloping down from Beacon Hill. A different ecosystem, its tents are more scattered and concealed in the lush foliage. Some residents, there for the privacy, are hermitlike.
Mayor Ed Murray suggested last month that outreach workers would take a few weeks to offer Jungle residents services and shelter. Then, they’d have to leave or be removed.
The Jungle by the numbers
Size:About 150 acres
Residents contacted by outreach workers May 23-June 9: 281
Residents accepting services: 47
People moving in since May 23 outreach: 25 (estimate)
People remaining in The Jungle: 111
By gender: 80 percent male, 20 percent female
By race: 45 percent white, 45 percent black, 10 percent other
Sources: city of Seattle, Union Gospel Mission
Advocates and campers pushed the City Council to delay a “sweep.” Now the timeline is fluid, as is the extent of the cleanup. Council members and Murray agreed to bring receptacles for trash and used needles to The Jungle. Council members have also proposed adding portable toilets to the decades-old encampment.
Sleeping in shifts
One well-worn path leads right to the cluster of tents where the Jan. 26 shootings left two dead and three injured.
A woman wounded in the attack said those in her camp now sleep in shifts. “No one sleeps without someone else on lookout anymore,” she said.
She shares a tent with a man also wounded that night when three teenagers allegedly burst into the campsite in what police have called an attempted drug robbery.
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Both are potential witnesses in the case against the teens, who have been charged with first-degree murder; their names are being withheld at their request to protect their safety.
According to their account, the shooters entered the camp from the east after being dropped off by a car. The woman, resting in her tent with a female friend at the time, stepped outside when she heard the first shots. A bullet crushed one of her vertebrae. Her friend, Jeannine Zapata, was killed still lying inside the tent.
The male victim remembers the assailants as “kids.” One opened fire just a few feet away from him, the man said.
A bullet hit him in the abdomen. Another hit his friend, James Q. Tran, in the head as he sat near the campfire, killing him.
Surgeons removed parts of the man’s stomach and small and large intestines. He survived, he said, by sticking his finger inside the bullet hole to stanch the bleeding and playing dead.
Scar tissue now runs from his sternum to his navel. The woman is partially paralyzed and walks with a limp.
Both returned to the gray dirt under the freeway.
“Why leave here?” the man asked. “This is my spot. I’ve been here 15 years. These are my people. I’m an authority figure here. I feed people here every day. So, long as we’re keeping the place clean, why should anyone bother us?”
The woman said her struggles with addiction make returning to her family difficult. The Caves feel comfortable to her.
“We all have addiction,” she said. “We all look out for each other. We all gotta help each other. That’s why we’re here.”
The city’s February assessment of The Jungle paints a darker picture. In the past five years, Seattle police have responded to more than 70 violent incidents. “The area is known for its lawlessness and frequently is host to drug dealing and property theft rings,” according to the city report.
Women could be especially vulnerable to rape and assault, the report said.
Union Gospel Mission President Jeff Lilley said that on his group’s first day of intensive outreach to Jungle residents last month, a five-member team happened upon a woman being sexually assaulted.
“There are no rules”
A few city blocks south from the site of the shootings, Angie Ulrich and her boyfriend built a shanty mostly from wooden pallets. The freeway’s underside is their ceiling.
“Obviously I don’t want to live under a bridge,” said Ulrich, 37. She said she’s been on and off heroin, and in and out of The Jungle, over the past 15 years.
Her campsite is deliberately perched on a rocky slope away from others and their temptations. It’s almost a straight jog down to a methadone clinic on Airport Way South that she depends on for a daily dose to keep her off heroin.
Unlike other women who say The Jungle feels safe to them, Ulrich said there are parts she wouldn’t walk at night by herself. “The rule of The Jungle is there are no rules,” she said.
Inside their semblance of a tiny house, Ulrich sat on a bed with a 4-month-old puppy. “We have weapons everywhere,” she said with a smile.
She’d gladly leave for an apartment, she said, but not for a mat in an overnight shelter. Like others, she runs through common complaints about shelters: bugs, drunks, fights, rip-offs. Plus, some don’t allow pets or partners.
Makeshift living room
Past more gray dirt and piles of refuse is Oliver’s camp.
She and her husband are former drug addicts, clean for eight years, she said. Their 28-year-old son has mental-health issues and a criminal record.
“If they say we’re here for drugs, they’re completely wrong,” she said. “We’re here because we can’t be anywhere else.”
They’ve been denied family housing by local agencies, she said, because of her son’s record.
Oliver said she isn’t scared in The Jungle. “I walk through at 11 o’clock at night by myself. That’s how comfortable I am.”
Not far from Oliver’s camp is a makeshift living room.
A group of men on couches passed around cans of malt liquor and cigarettes. One rose from a couch to embrace a friend who now has a full-time job and a home but came back to visit.
The men won’t share their names for publication, or their stories. But one says he has lived in a tent off-and-on for the past decade. Asked what he’d like city officials to do to help those under I-5, he demurred.
“I’m out here because I made my decisions, good and bad,” he said. “I don’t want any handouts. I just want to be left alone.”
There’s a reason The Jungle has seemed quieter, said Lilley of Union Gospel Mission (UGM).
After three weeks of outreach by his teams, The Jungle’s population had dwindled, he said, to 111 people on June 14. Forty-seven had opted to receive help from UGM, the city or other agencies. Others left on their own, according to a spokeswoman for the agency.
Addiction remains the most stubborn challenge for those who remain, Lilley said.
“Our teams estimated 90 percent of the people have some type of addiction issues. Heroin is pretty rampant,” he said, particularly in the north end of the Caves. “It’s very clear to us that some camps are clearly dealing drugs.”
As you go farther south, he said, alcohol tends to be the drug of choice.
While violence does flare, it’s not a constant, he said. The Jungle is more sad and grim, he agreed, than a Mad Max-like dystopia. Still, all that stands between many campers and rats, needles and human waste is a tent wall.
Sometimes that thin protection isn’t available. UGM workers reported meeting a man who had overdosed on heroin and was found by his wife lying outside his tent, a rat gnawing at his face. The man lost part of his eyelid and eye, but was not interested in relocation assistance, according to UGM.
Some of the shelter complaints are off base, Lilley said. His organization can store people’s belongings, he said, arrange for temporary pet care and shelter couples together.
“What they’re saying is they’re not ready to move,” he said. “You can do everything, but some individuals are just not ready yet.”
If removed, Lilley acknowledged, some campers would just move to other public land or come back to The Jungle in a cat-and-mouse game with City Hall.
“As much as I don’t believe it’s good to shuffle everybody,” he said, “the other side is leaving them in a place that continues to spiral downward.”