The state Legislature approved a request for $1 million to improve safety in the Seattle homeless encampment known as the The Jungle.
State Sen. Reuven Carlyle caused a stir in February when he proposed the Legislature earmark $1 million to keep people out of the homeless encampment known as The Jungle by fencing it off.
But now that the Seattle Democrat’s proposal has been approved, state transportation officials responsible for much of the notorious site under and next to Interstate 5 say they might not build a fence, after all.
“We don’t have any plan right now to build a fence,” said Dave McCormick, assistant regional maintenance administrator for the Washington State Department of Transportation. “The Legislature has provided this money for safety improvements, and a fence is more for security than for safety.”
Debate about whether to close off The Jungle began Feb. 25 when Carlyle issued a news release saying 8,000 feet of fencing would be installed at the site, where many people are living in unsanitary conditions and where two people had recently been shot to death.
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Several Seattle City Council members ripped the plan, suggesting the state should instead spend the money to help people in The Jungle.
Carlyle then backpedaled, calling for limited fencing rather than a large enclosure. He subsequently worked to add language to the budget item requiring the transportation department to collaborate with city and county officials on a comprehensive, multi-faceted approach to cleaning up The Jungle.
Mayor Ed Murray at the time declined to comment on whether The Jungle should be fenced, calling it a state decision. But an email exchange, obtained in a Seattle Times public-disclosure request, shows Murray had been hearing about the option for weeks.
On Feb. 12, Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole forwarded the mayor an email from longtime police Sgt. Paul Gracy about the possibility of fencing off The Jungle.
“I have been dealing with the homeless population for several years now and have been listening to the current calls to sweep and secure the jungle,” Gracy wrote.
“I believe it is a knee jerk reaction and a bad approach to the true issue. The 36 years I have been with SPD the jungle has been an issue. As is the case now a high profile incident occurs and it once again is on the front burner,” he added.
The sergeant wrote, “If the people making the decisions would take the time as I have to sit down and listen to the folks that frequent the area you could see that these folks have made a conscious decision to stay or visit the Jungle.”
He went on, “No matter how much fencing they put in place the fencing will be breached and they will return. With that said I always like to come to the table with something to at least consider. I much rather have to manage these folks in the jungle outside of the downtown business and growing residential core. Every action has a reaction and we cannot push them out without a good plan.”
Gracy then suggested the city build better access roads to The Jungle, cut back the brush there, consider new lighting, bring in portable toilets and trash bins, provide outreach to residents, direct police to patrol and seek help from the state.
“We need to think outside the box,” he concluded.
There is no precise plan yet for the $1 million earmark because state, county and city officials are still working on a comprehensive strategy, McCormick said.
But the Transportation Department will almost surely use some of the money to remove trash from The Jungle and improve access roads there, he said.
Murray’s public-safety adviser, Scott Lindsay, said officials working on the problem will give the mayor, county executive and governor recommendations later this month.
Those likely will include restricting access to the site with new gates at certain street ends on the west side of I-5, Lindsay said.