Fencing “The Jungle”: Keeping Residents In Or Out?

by Elaine Simons

The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) is currently debating whether or not to build a $1 million fence around the homeless encampment known as “The Jungle.”

First off, we need to stop referring to the encampment as “The Jungle.” We are not living in some remote area of the continent; this is Washington State after all. WSDOT has responsibility for maintaining their properties, but is the intent of building this fence to keep the homeless residents in or out of the site?

Homelessness is prevalent in the city because King County’s 10- year plan to end it failed on so many levels. Coordinated entry and data collection were systems put in place that failed. As a homeless advocate, I recall attending a couple intakes and was appalled by the process. It was demeaning. If the problem was not in public view it would not be as big of a concern.

However it impacts tourism and big cruise ships bring money to Seattle. I am not a proponent of encampments, tent cities or shelters as many of the houseless folks I worked with over the years bypass shelters and tent cities, preferring to squat in abandoned buildings or live in loose knit communities in the woods or under I5. For them, staying in a shelter or encampment poses to many obstacles.

I have been working with homeless/ marginalized youth and young adults for over 20 years in Seattle, WA as the Founding Executive Director of PSKS (Peace for the Streets by Kids from the Streets) and  in New York City, as the Art Specialist at Covenant House Under  21. During those years I recognized one common denominator: young people do not want to be treated as a statistic or a number. They want to be recognized as individuals with individual stories and with an individually tailored process to help them navigate the system.

The largest complaints I heard about shelters were that unmarried couples couldn’t be together, time restraints that prohibited people from working certain jobs, pet companions not being allowed, and minor boys over the age of 13 not being able to accompany their mothers inside domestic violence shelters. I recall a homeless couple who stayed homeless rather than face separation at a shelter while they waited for their section 8 housing vouchers.

A potential alternative to shelters and encampments would be to provide tax incentives to empty nesters who house homeless folks while they await resources including section 8 vouchers, insurance and wraparound services. I took in a homeless family two years ago without any incentives. It’s been a rough journey but also richly rewarding.

During my tenure at PSKS one of the programs we took pride in was “Step Beyond” which followed a young person from houseless to housed to ensure they never fell back into homelessness. The program is peer driven. Everyone at the table had experienced homelessness at some point in their life including the program coordinator. The success of Step Beyond is due to people being able to pull support from one another.

We learned early on that transitioning off the streets can be lonely and isolating after years of squatting in parks and living with friends. The key to success is removing those isolating factors and providing a safe network of peers.

Elaine Simons is a Middle College HS Art Teacher.

Featured image from Wikicommons.

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