City staff found about 200 tents on a three-mile stretch of land under the freeway known as the Jungle.
City staff found about 200 tents on a three-mile stretch of land under I-5 known as "the Jungle." City of Seattle

At a Saturday organizing conference she called the "People's Assembly," Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant slammed a recent proposal from state senators to spend $1 million clearing the homeless encampment known as "the Jungle." The plan, which is being led by Seattle Democrat Reuven Carlyle and has the support of Mayor Ed Murray, would also build an 8,000-foot-long razor wire fence to keep people from moving back into the area.

Sawant, who has argued the city should instead offer sanitation services to the people living in the encampment, called the plan "a complete waste of $1 million." She's calling for the city to take another $10 million from its rainy day fund for homelessness services.

Real Change Director Tim Harris echoed Sawant's criticism of Carlyle's plan. "What the hell is that?" Harris said at the assembly.

People sleeping in areas like the Jungle are sending a message to city leaders, Harris said: "The system is failing us. The shelter isn't working for us. For us, for our situation, this works. Let us try to meet our survival needs because you're not."

Harris has been an outspoken critic of the Murray administration's continued sweeps of illegal homeless encampments, which city staff say have only about a 40 percent success rate at getting the people who are swept into shelter. Some city shelter options have sobriety requirements or limits like no couples or no pets. Those factors, or conditions like anxiety, can prevent people living on the streets from accepting shelter services. Until real low-barrier options are offered, they'll continue sleeping outside.

"We will never end homelessness as long as we are treating resistance to system failure as a criminal activity to be shut down," Harris said.

Carlyle has defended his plan, saying a clearing of the jungle must be accompanied by efforts to transition people living there into shelter or treatment. Carlyle says he and other Democrats have pushed for increased homelessness funding only to be thwarted by Senate Republicans.

Even so, the message from advocates remains: Sweeping the Jungle without offering realistic alternatives will do little to solve homelessness in Seattle.

"If you offered anybody living in a shitty hell hole like that something better," Harris said, "they're going to take it. We need to be able to offer people something better and meet their immediate needs in the mean time."

UPDATE: Sawant's not the only city council member slamming the fence idea. At the council's weekly briefing this morning, Council Members Sally Bagshaw, Lorena González, and Debora Juarez all joined Sawant in criticizing the idea. Bagshaw, measured as always, thanked Carlyle for setting aside money to address the Jungle, but called a fence "a very bad use of money [that] doesn't get to the root of the problem."

Juarez called the idea "insane" and "ridiculous."

When a city's lobbyist told council members the $1 million hadn't necessarily been earmarked for a fence yet, González pointed out that because that money is part of the senate's transportation budget, its legal uses are limited. It can be used on various ways of addressing the area under I-5, but it can't be used on social services for the people living there.

"We shouldn't be building a fence on the southern border," González said, "and we shouldn't be building a fence on the I-5 corridor."

Council Member Tim Burgess, meanwhile, praised Carlyle's idea because of the poor conditions outlined in a city report on the Jungle. "It's quite humane to make sure those areas are safe," Burgess said. "That may or may not involve fencing some sections."