by Hanna Brooks Olsen
(This was originally published on Seattlish and has been reprinted with permission)
What do you do with 300 or more individuals humans who have been living in one area, but you want them to live somewhere else? If you’re the State of Washington and the City of Seattle, you decide to tell them to move along in just two weeks, but you don’t actually expand your service offerings to do so.
In a joint announcement today, the Mayor’s office, WSDOT, and service providers announced their plan to “clean up” the unsanctioned encampment under I-5 through a “combination of deterrents, law enforcement, and activation of the space,” though they swore they probablywouldn’t arrest people.
Unfortunately, when pressed about where the people staying in the Jungle would actually go, there were few satisfactory answers.
Shelters are already overcrowded—something one of the city officials in the press conference acknowledged, barely, by saying that they could get all 300ish people currently living in the Jungle (which, by the way, we’re now supposed to refer to as the East Duwamish Greenbelt) if it were really cold out and they needed to—and decidedly do not have capacity for an influx of new people.
Aside from that, shelters are full of barriers to entry and access, may be difficult or impossible options for folks with PTSD or other disabilities, have requirements of substance-free living and other infringements on personal freedoms, and are generally just not a good option for everyone.
That didn’t seem to phase the liaison from the Mayor’s office, or the spokesperson for the Union Gospel Mission, a faith-based service provider who is in charge of doing the outreach to help flush out the residents of the Jungle.
This is an extremely disappointing development; for weeks, we’ve been hearing that members of City Council, who’ve been carefully examining the protocol around unsanctioned encampments, have been in talks with service providers and legal associates to determine how best to help individuals in unsanctioned encampments rather than sweeping them away. They’ve been addressing the MDAR, a problematic piece of vague legislation that often leads to peoples’ personal belongings being confiscated or thrown away. There have also been creative harm-reduction strategies, like the trash pickup program, proposed and piloted.
But now, the Mayor’s office has decided to move ahead with an action that is difficult not to see as caving to “concerned citizens” who see the Jungle as a risk to their personal safety and nothing more.
“Through a combination of outreach and services, as well as better access for first responders, we hope to transition those currently living in tents under the freeway into stable shelter, while supporting public safety in the area,” Mayor Ed Murray said in a statement.
Unfortunately, it seems unlikely that the services will actually be robust enough—or that they’ll have enough time—to do what needs to be done. Many residents of the Jungle have been there for years, and two weeks is likely not enough time to get them into a better situation, particularly in a climate where people with rapid rehousing vouchers routinely wait for months to even get into a place.
To hear UGM’s spokesman talk about it, the Mission has already been doing copious outreach in the Jungle. However, reports from KUOW would contradict that; many residents of the area report having seen very few outreach workers, and because police and fire rarely go into the area, it’s difficult to say that anyone’s done anything to care for the people under there.
This situation—with UGM, who are extremely, extremely religious and thus not all that inviting for all people (and also arguably not the best place to funnel tax money), with $1M in transportation dollars that could be better put to use, and with no real plan in place to help all of the individuals in the Jungle—is a true disappointment.
We’d really, really expected better from the Mayor, from the Governor, from WSDOT, and from the community partners. But then, maybe we shouldn’t have.
Here’s hoping that the other service providers in the area take note and step up to help those who are about to be displaced with nowhere to go.