Was the months-long effort to clear Seattle’s Jungle homeless encampment worth it? The City Council is unconvinced. But the people who actually did the work have 87 reasons the council’s wrong.
Seattle’s notorious Jungle homeless encampment has finally been cleared.
Aid workers say the last of 357 people camped in the greenbelt next to and under I-5 were moved out this past week.
“It is empty,” exulted Jeff Lilley, the head of Union Gospel Mission, which led the city’s months-long outreach efforts.
One might think this would be hailed as good news, considering that eight months ago there was a mass shooting in The Jungle, and seven months ago a city report called it a “humanitarian disaster” in one of America’s richest cities.
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But down at the City Council, the clear-out was given a big “meh” by some council members. They noted that in the end, 75 percent of The Jungle’s residents refused offers of help, housing or shelter — proving the cleanup basically failed and shouldn’t be repeated.
“The question I’m trying to get at is what happens to these human beings after you conduct the sweep?” said Kshama Sawant. “They have a human right and a constitutional right to exist somewhere.”
So I asked the team that just spent four months in The Jungle: What did happen? Was it a failure?
“It was easily the most successful homeless encampment sweep the City of Seattle has ever done,” Lilley said.
First, the numbers: Of 357 folks counted living in The Jungle last spring, all were contacted multiple times with offers of temporary shelter, legal help, alcohol or drug rehab (which typically includes housing) or financial assistance to reunite with family. They were given choices of going to a faith-based shelter like Union Gospel, and some secular options.
In the end, 87 accepted — 24 percent. They went into housing or were moved to a sanctioned encampment, such as Othello Village run by the Low Income Housing Institute.
Some others moved out of The Jungle to a new encampment at Royal Brougham and Alaskan Way. This “Jungle suburb” has since been stocked with portable toilets and water service.
An estimated 250 simply drifted off somewhere else. Nobody knows what happened to them.
Aid workers say there was such unprecedented outreach over months that only two campers out of 357 had to be removed from the site — that is, swept. Nobody was arrested. There was a knife attack Tuesday that led to Seattle police shooting, and killing, the attacker.
Brian Chandler, who led the Union Gospel team, said hundreds of shelter beds were made available, both at organizations like his and by the city. But few were used because most Jungle denizens refused them.
“The reality is they would rather stay there, if allowed to, because it gives them freedom, there’s no rules, and those that use drugs can keep using,” he said.
Every housing or shelter option has rules against drug use. The city is considering adding shelters and tent encampments that allow drug use.
But Lilley said if you’re in the business of coaxing people with substance-abuse and mental-health problems to come out of the woods, a one-in-four success rate is actually extremely high.
“For some on the City Council to say ‘That’s a failure,’ well, we’ll put that up against anything the city’s been trying over the years,” Lilley said. “That’s certainly more success than anybody was having in The Jungle before.”
It’s also true, though, that three-fourths of the problem has simply moved. Lilley said, “My argument on that would be: Then let’s repeat the effort we just gave at The Jungle over in the next encampment. And then do it again, and again and again.”
The thing about people who work with the homeless: They are relentless in their refusal to get discouraged by failure. Because failure is constant. As is political second-guessing.
Chandler described a woman who refused to leave The Jungle for months, but approached him on one of the last days. She had just been beaten by her husband, who also lived in The Jungle. She had three broken ribs protruding from her body.
“It took that level of trauma to finally get her to consider leaving that place,” he said. “She’s healing now, we got her into housing. She’s safe for the first time in years.
“That’s what I think about when people question whether it was worth it.”