In a defensive press conference today, Mayor Ed Murray announced that the people living in the large homeless encampment under I-5 known as "the Jungle" won't face a two-week deadline to get out, as his administration indicated last week. Just how long they will have before the area is swept remains unclear.
Last week, staff from Mayor Ed Murray's administration laid out their plan for clearing the longtime encampment where a high-profile shooting took place in January. The Union Gospel Mission would lead an "intensive outreach push" for "at least two weeks," said Scott Lindsay, the mayor's public safety advisor who's led much of the administration's effort on homelessness. "Then, at the conclusion of that, there will be a deadline where... ultimately people will be asked to leave by law enforcement."
"After about two weeks," Lindsay repeated later, "we expect that hopefully many of the folks there will have either accepted the shelter and services that are offered or will have decided to uproot and move on. At that point, Seattle Police will begin to support and ask people—and tell people—that they need to leave the area."
Today, the mayor backpedaled from any hard deadline for the area.
"I believe it will take an extensive amount of time for us to empty out the Jungle," Murray said, disputing the characterization of the action as a "sweep." Murray said outreach workers will continue trying to connect homeless people to services, but campers will not be arrested for staying in the area unless they are engaged in "significant criminal activity."
Murray's comments today come after a week of criticism from advocates and some city council members who said the timeline was too short to offer meaningful outreach to people living under the freeway. A city assessment in February found about 200 campsites under the freeway. Murray has said repeatedly he believes the area is dangerous, should be permanently shut down, and people should be prevented from camping there in the future. Advocates have argued the people living in the area have complex needs that can't immediately be met by the city's existing shelter system and limited mental health and addiction treatment services.
“A two to three week deadline is a recipe for failure,” Council Member Mike O’Brien told The Stranger earlier this week.
Murray was insistent while speaking to reporters today that the two-week timeline was never intended to be a hard deadline. (OK, Ed.) But he stuck by his belief that the Jungle needs to be permanently closed, calling it "the worst of pretty bad options" for people living outside. City council members disagree. O'Brien has said that, while the city should aggressively build more shelter and housing, it should also allow some parts of the Jungle to remain open to homeless campers. Council Member Sally Bagshaw said today the area under I-5 should be cleaned of garbage and human waste "section by section." While one area is being cleaned, campers should be allowed to stay in another area, she said. O'Brien, Bagshaw, and Kshama Sawant support adding portable toilets and dumpsters to the area.
"It doesn't make sense to just chase people around," Bagshaw said today.
Complicating current outreach efforts: No one can say for sure how many people are living in the Jungle. The February assessment found 200 campsites, which the city at the time said translated to as many as 400 people. Murray said at today's press conference that only about 65 people remain in the area. UGM President Jeff Lilley told reporters later that 158 people are living there. And Bagshaw said "the numbers aren't clear."
It's also unclear whether the city's existing shelter system can house everyone currently living in the Jungle. Murray said today, "quite honestly, we don't have the resources to provide everybody shelter, so it's going to be impossible for us to remove everybody." When asked to clarify, he said there is enough shelter space for the 65 people he believed remained in the area. UGM said Monday six people living in the Jungle, including one child, had accepted shelter or services that day. (They say the deadline was helping convince people to leave.) The mayor said another eight people are expected to move out of the area today.
When pressed on how long he planned to give people in the Jungle to leave, Murray was vague.
"No one said that we were going to go in there—and I've said this at press conference after press conference after press conference—it is going to take us a very long time until a place like the Jungle and other unsafe places... before it's finally empty," the mayor said. "The two-week period is going to be an intense period of outreach."
And when will heavy equipment be used to clear the area of garbage, as Lindsay described last week?
"To the extent that we can do that, we will do that," Murray said. "It's going to take a long time and it's not going to be perfect. I know people want this story because it's the old story in Seattle: 'Mayor bulldozes homeless, throws 'em in bad situations.' But we're actually having a very different dialogue. We're saying we actually can't take care of everybody, but we're going to try and take care of as many as we can."
UPDATE: At a city council committee meeting this afternoon, homelessness advocates urged the city not to clear the Jungle. "There are two places people can go [after sweeps]," said Alison Eisinger, executive director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness. "They can go deeper into places where they will not be readily found and they can go into neighborhoods." Jennifer Shaw, deputy director of the ACLU of Washington, said the city should stop sweeping homeless encampments and, in case it doesn't, her organization is "in the process of preparing litigation." (A spokesperson for the ACLU declined to offer any further details about a possible lawsuit except that "The litigation will remind the city that homeless people have constitutional rights.")
Council Members Tim Burgess and Lisa Herbold asked Lilley, president of UGM, about that organization's religious affiliation, which has been criticized.
"We are a Christian organization. That's been pretty clear," Lilley said. But "it is not something that's required... We don't believe that should be a barrier to anybody."
Staff from the mayor's office and UGM doubled down on the line that they never intended to only offer outreach in the Jungle for two weeks. Lindsay, the mayor's public safety advisor who gave the two-week timeline last week, told council members today that this is "not a two-week or two-month" effort. "This is a sustained period of engagement," Lindsay said. "I think that's been a mischaracterization or misunderstanding about the plan."