by Shaun Knittel -
SGN Associate Editor
Although nothing new, many Seattleites did not learn of The Jungle's existence until the January 26 shooting that claimed the lives of several homeless people during what police describe as an attempt by area teens to collect a drug debt for their mother.
Officially, The Jungle, is a greenbelt on the western slope of Beacon Hill known for both its homeless encampments and crime. The Jungle consists of more than 160 acres underneath and along an elevated section of Interstate 5 between South Dearborn Street and Lucille Street. In a January 2016 assessment, prior to the January 26 shooting, 201 tents were counted and more than 400 homeless people were estimated to be living in the encampment. From 2011 to 2016, The Jungle was the site of at least 750 incidents responded to by the Seattle Fire Department, of which 500 were emergency medical situations.
While it is clear that something needs to be done, it is unclear, as of now, what exactly that 'something' should be.
On proposal, however, is drawing ire from far and wide. In February, the Washington State Legislature proposed $1 million to install an 8,000-foot-long, 6-foot-high razor wire and barbed-wire fence to encircle the 100-acre area. Seattle Mayor Ed Murray agrees with that idea of installing a fence.
On November 2, 2015, Mayor Ed Murray declared a civil state of emergency over Seattle's growing homelessness crisis. That declaration was followed with calls for greater state and federal funding, moderate increases in city funding for homeless services, and clearances or 'sweeps' of unauthorized homeless encampments that homeless advocates and some city council members have publicly decried. The January 26 shootings, in which two people were killed and three were injured during a shooting at The Jungle encampment led to calls from Mayor Murray and other local officials to close the encampment per state trespassing laws, though homeless advocates have said that the city should stop closing unauthorized encampments until it has an alternative location or shelter for campers.
Next week Seattle Gay News will publish a report on some of the alternative locations for shelter and some of the ideas that are being passed around, which do not include a fence with razor wire, to help campers possibly move towards better housing and shelter situations.
It is important to note that The Jungle has been in existence for decades. In fact, some reports say that homeless people may have used the area as early as the 1930s.
In the 1990s The Jungle gained a bad reputation when the city began razing the encampments. In 1994, about 50 campsites yielded 120 tons of trash. In fact, many of Seattle's organized tent cities for the homeless are offshoots of illegal communities that formed after squatters were forcibly removed from The Jungle. Periodic bulldozing since the '90s by the city or State Department of Transportation has led the homeless to complain that the city provides little to no warning before enacting cleanups. Last month, Seattle City Council spoke with members of the Murray administration about the way in which the city conducts cleanups.
According to police officials, The Jungle increasingly became a haven for criminals in the 2000s. Criminal activity has included assaults, rapes, prostitution, and murders. Also, residences in the Beacon Hill neighborhood have been burglarized by those staying in The Jungle. Gang members basing their drug trade in the woods also became a concern over the last decade.
The Jungle is considered unsafe at any hour, although some have argued that its danger is exaggerated by officials and media. Still, nobody can deny that weapons, used drug paraphernalia, stolen goods, and human feces are seen during the city and state sweeps. Plus, there have been many deaths in and around the greenbelt. Between September 1997 and February 1998, the bodies of three women murdered by a serial killer were found in the area, although it is not known if the killer resided in The Jungle or not. There have been numerous lower-profile murders. Transients have been killed attempting to cross the nearby freeways. A homeless man was inadvertently killed in June 2007 as workers were mowing a blackberry thicket he was sleeping in.
The big questions on tax payers minds are: would a fence work in keeping people out of The Jungle? would the fence displace the hundreds of Jungle residents causing them to set up more mini-Jungles elsewhere? and how much more will this cost? Currently, budgeted at $1 million, the fence would consist of chain link topped with three strings of barbed wire circled with razor wire. At six feet high, it would encircle 100 acres in a 3-mile area by the freeway.
Lars Erickson, spokesman for the state's Department of Transportation (WSDOT), which would pay for the fence, told The Seattle Times, 'We find very frequently that the moment a fence is up, within hours that area has people in it. People cut through the fence or dig underneath it.'
He says a security team would be needed to make sure that doesn't happen. The cost of contracting a security firm like Securitas USA, the firm that provides security for such clients as Sound Transit, Weyerhaeuser and Microsoft, is not accounted for in the $1 million budget. In fact, at this point, nobody knows where that money will come from.
One person expressing doubts about the fence is Alison Eisinger, head of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness.
'I'm interested in prudent use of public resources,' she says. 'My recommendation is to spend money on housing before spending money on a fence.'
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