Seattle Democratic State Senator Reuven Carlyle wants the state to spend $1 million to clear the area under Interstate 5 currently home to a homeless encampment known as "the Jungle." The money would also fund a six-foot-tall fence topped with razor wire to keep homeless people from moving back into to the area.
The Jungle has been in the spotlight since a shooting there left two people dead last month. An assessment led by the Seattle Fire Department detailed poor safety and sanitary conditions in the camp. Meanwhile, the city is struggling to provide shelter and treatment services that actually help the people living in encampments like the Jungle. That's left some in city hall calling for the area to be swept and others calling for the city to add portable toilets or plumbing to the area instead.
Mayor Ed Murray has said he believes the area should be cleared and blocked off. When I spoke to him this afternoon, Murray hadn't yet heard about the senate proposal but called it a "step in the right direction."
The senate plan would build an 8,000-foot-long, six-foot-high fence around the Jungle "made of heavy gauge metal with razor wire wrapped around three strands of barbed wire," according Carlyle's office. (Carlyle represents the 36th District, covering Magnolia, Queen Anne, and Ballard.) The idea comes via an amendment to the senate's transportation budget, which passed a senate committee this week. It will also need support in the Washington State House of Representatives, which is controlled by Democrats. I have a request in to House Speaker Frank Chopp for his response and I'll update this if I hear back.
Both Carlyle and Murray have similar justifications for shutting down the Jungle.
"It's deadly," Carlyle told me. "It's dangerous. It crosses the line of safety to the extent that we have a responsibility of safety to move folks out. It's just over the top and it's a danger."
"When you look at the level of violent crime underneath the freeway alone," Murray said, "it is not a safe place for people, period, even if you're homeless... I don't know of another homeless encampment that has anywhere close to the violent crimes reported [in the Jungle]."
The problem is that for many reasons, including restrictions we place on shelters and sanctioned encampments, some people, especially those who are addicted, will continue to sleep outside. So while police and fire officials say the Jungle is dangerous, moving people out of the area will likely just push them to some other isolated and dangerous location. Carlyle says he supports a "thoughtful" and "holistic" approach that tries to connect people living in the camp to services when the area is cleared.
Murray turns the criticism back to the point he's been hammering on since he declared a state of emergency on homelessness in November. Murray says consultants and federal officials have told his administration "that Seattle seems to have a broken approach to homelessness that's focused completely on encampments and not on actually ending homelessness." He wants more state and federal funding, particularly for substance abuse and mental health treatment. In the meantime, Murray says the emergency funds his administration has set aside ("every spare penny") are the most he can provide without cutting other programs and laying off city staff.
"The city doesn't fund mental health and doesn't fund addiction services," Murray says. "We need the state to step up for the state of emergency."
Carlyle says the city has traditionally been "more on the frontline" providing homeless services, but agrees with the mayor that "we have to reexamine some of those core assumptions." And what is he doing to that end? Carlyle says he's not proposing any new money specifically for helping people living in the Jungle, but Senate Democrats are pushing to take money from the state's rainy day fund for homelessness. And, he says, being blocked by Senate Republicans.
This post has been updated.