Less than a week after Mayor Ed Murray's administration announced their plan to sweep the large homeless encampment under I-5 known as the Jungle, that plan is already facing pushback at city hall.
Seattle City Council members Sally Bagshaw and Mike O'Brien announced Monday morning that they're working on a resolution presenting an alternative plan for clearing the area. In particular, they're worried about the mayor's timeline. Last week, Murray's public safety advisor, Scott Lindsay, said outreach workers from the Union Gospel Mission would have two weeks to offer shelter, housing, and treatment to the 200 to 400 people living in the Jungle now before the city and state begin clearing the area with heavy equipment. That outreach began yesterday. Some advocates have said two weeks is an impossibly short timeline. "This is a quick and dirty operation that's going to create misery," Real Change Director Tim Harris recently told KUOW.
The question from advocates and council members is a familiar one: If the city says people can't live in the Jungle, where are they supposed to go? While the city and county have expanded shelter space in recent months, rules and restrictions in those shelters don't always work for the complex needs of people living in encampments like the Jungle. Drug treatment and permanent housing remain difficult to access. During the council's afternoon meeting yesterday, a small group of homeless advocates rallied at City Hall. One speaker, who said he was a former resident of the Jungle, demanded the city stop homeless sweeps, stop paying private companies to clear encampments, offer more housing, and open more 24-hour shelters.
"It is our goal to avoid a wholesale displacement of people, thereby making a situation worse for many," Bagshaw said Monday. "But also until we've got a real conscious and extended plan to move people from underneath I-5 in the greenbelt, we don't want to see people just moving [to] places where it's going to create more harm and more disruption to neighborhoods."
But Bagshaw isn't revealing what, exactly, she believes should be included in a "conscious and extended plan."
Bagshaw said Monday the mayor had asked for a "courtesy few days" to review her resolution, so she isn't making it public until Wednesday, when a council committee will discuss it. Bagshaw said she hoped to meet with the mayor last night; the mayor's office has not yet offered comment. Bagshaw told the Seattle Times that, while council members agree with the mayor's plans to make the Jungle more accessible to police and fire vehicles, they want toilets and garbage cans installed in the area. She also said other organizations should assist UGM, a religious organization, in doing outreach.
In an interview, O'Brien told The Stranger he hopes the city will spend a few months instead of two weeks doing outreach in the area. But he is also not convinced it needs to be entirely shut down, as the mayor has argued. While some areas may be dangerous for campers or state workers who need to access the area, others may be "OK places for people to be living now," O'Brien said. He doesn't believe the city should waste money sweeping those camps. "We need to be strategic."
"I can envision a world in which there is no need for anyone to be camped out in the greenbelt or anywhere else," O'Brien said. "But that world includes a lot more affordable housing than we have today and that world is at least few years away."
While O'Brien and Council Member Kshama Sawant have been adamant about stopping all city sweeps of homeless encampments, Bagshaw has been more measured. That makes her criticism of the mayor here notable and means she's more likely than Sawant or O'Brien alone to get the rest of the council on board with her alternative—whatever that turns out to be.
UGM, meanwhile, sent an update by email last night about its first day of outreach in the area. Torie Rynning, a spokesperson for the organization, wrote that UGM "engaged with" 58 people in the Jungle as of 4 p.m. yesterday "focused on meeting with people and listening." They connected five adults and one child with shelter or other services. Beginning today, UGM will be "offering mobile case management and will continue to re-engage with existing friends and meet new ones," Rynning wrote. "We are optimistic about the amount of people who can be helped through this effort over the next few weeks."