Why the Jungle Sweeps are Bound to Fail

The city’s plan for clearing homeless encampments ignores the fundamental reasons people are there to begin with.

On Monday, the Union Gospel Mission began outreach to the Jungle, a stretch of unpermitted homeless encampments along I-5. The religious agency is working with Mayor Ed Murray’s office, which plans to clear out the Jungle within weeks. “We hope to transition those currently living in tents under the freeway into stable shelter, while supporting public safety in the area,” Murray said in a press release.

The Jungle is a decades-old no man’s land of tents and improvised structures hidden beneath the highway and behind the bushes and trees of the East Duwamish Greenbelt. As a recent city assessment noted, the area contains human poop, campfires, used needles, and a great deal of trash. It is also refuge to hundreds of Seattleites, five of whom were shot in January in an apparent dispute over drug money. At the scene of that shooting, Murray told reporters that Seattle must “finally take control” of the Jungle. “We have to go into these encampments…[to] offer people services, clean the place up, and try and get people out,” he said.

This isn’t the first time an executive in shining armor has tried to raze the Jungle. As Casey Jaywork previously reported, Seattle already cleared the Jungle in 1994, 1998, and 2003. As in those previous years, homeless advocates are raising hell: a dozen protesters confronted leaders at city hall on Monday, demanding the Jungle remain available to campers. Other critics point out that while Union Gospel Mission technically has enough space to absorb the Jungle population temporarily, there is no sustainable plan for where or how to house hundreds of high-needs homeless folks in the long term. Seattle’s shelter network is filled to the brink, and there’s a multi-year waitlist for public housing.

But really, the question of shelter capacity is academic. If history is any guide, most Jungle residents will decline offers of shelter and instead migrate into even more reclusive encampments or onto the streets of surrounding neighborhoods. Eventually many will return to the Jungle, as they have in the past. Is their decision to return reckless and “service resistant”? No, councilmember Mike O’Brien told Jaywork earlier this week. “A mat on a gym floor with 50 other people where you have no privacy and there are other people that are suffering from mental health [problems] that are going to be screaming in the middle of the night, and your belongings may be stolen—that is not an upgrade for [campers],” he says. “If they say, ‘No thanks, I’m better off where I am, I’m better off in the woods, and if you don’t let me be in these woods I’ll go find some other woods in town to hide in’—that’s a rational decision that they’re making.”

Sweeps feel good, and make for great TV. They’re a fast, cathartic response to an ugly, urgent problem. But they also, almost by definition, ignore the underlying reasons people have chosen to live in our urban woods. As such, they are bound to fail.

There are other options out there. Real Change founder Tim Harris proposes city leaders use the Jungle as a way to bring services to an already-concentrated homeless population. This is just one example of a Jungle strategy that doesn’t evict hundreds of Seattleites from what meager homes they’ve scraped together and then assume the resulting refugees will evaporate into thin air. This criticism isn’t so much ethical as pragmatic: if we aren’t honest in our conversations about why people are in the Jungle to begin with, then we are doomed to repeat a history of spending lots of money and having little to show for it in a few years.

The mayor is right that Seattle cannot afford to ignore the Jungle’s public health and safety hazards. Yet mass eviction is not a solution. It will merely push campers elsewhere, for a while. Despite the humane gloss of UGM’s outreach provides, the mayor’s proposed sweep is just another round of whack-a-mole with the homeless.

More in News & Comment

Photo by Jessica Spengler/Flickr
Budget Proposal Would Jeopardize Washington’s Food Assistance Program

Policy analysts say Trump’s plan to slash SNAP’s funding would push people further into poverty.

2017 People’s Tribunal, organized by Northwest Detention Center Resistance. Photo by Sara Bernard.
Immigrant Rights Community Responds to Allegations Against Seattle ICE Attorney

Activists say that Monday’s charges further vindicate their fight against the organization’s tactics.

Washington State Capitol. Photo by Nicole Jennings
Washington May Soon Teach Sexual Abuse Prevention in Schools

The State Legislature is considering training aimed at improving child safety.

Freedom, Hate, and a Campus Divided

Last weekend’s Patriot Prayer event cast doubts on claims of openness by UW College Republicans.

State Legislators Look to “Ban the Box”

The House of Representatives votes to end questioning criminal history on job applications.

Dennis Peron. Illustration by James the Stanton
The Cannabis Community Mourns Activist Dennis Peron

The grandfather of medicinal marijuana was 72.

Seattle school bus drivers ended a nine-day strike that affected more than 12,000 students. Photo by Melissa Hellmann
Seattle Schools Still Seeking Future Options After Bus Drivers End Nine-Day Strike

As the yellow bus service resumes, the district continues plans to attract more contractors.

UW’s campus may be getting bigger. Photo by Joe Mabel/Flickr
Community Members Raise Concerns About UW’s Expansion Plans

The university’s growth plan faces pushback due to environmental, housing, and neighborhood issues.

Seattle will soon vacate misdemeanor marijuana convictions. Photo courtesy of Bob Doran/Flickr
Seattle Moves to Clear Marijuana Misdemeanor Convictions

The mayor and city attorney’s policy change could impact hundreds convicted before weed legalization.

Most Read