Council gets briefed on The Jungle: we’re going to need a bigger table

This morning the City Council got a briefing on the recent assessment of the East Duwamish Greenbelt homeless encampment, better known as “The Jungle.”

You can read the assessment team’s written report here, or my summary here. The factual part of this morning’s briefing didn’t relay much information beyond what was in the report, instead the council members were eager to discuss an appropriate response.

There was general agreement that the current situation is untenable: over 400 people living in 150 acres underneath and surrounding a 3-mile stretch of Interstate 5. With no clean water, toilets, power, heat or sanitation, the public health hazards are many and serious — and they spill over, quite literally, into the neighboring communities and into the local waterways. SFP Chief Harold Scoggins and his team also laid out the public safety, fire, infrastructure and environmental hazards present for both the residents and the neighboring communities.  Council member Burgess summed up the situation neatly: “There is no ambiguity about these unsanctioned encampments: they are inherently dangerous.” Burgess has previously said that he believes all unsanctioned encampments post significant problems and are dangerous.

The Jungle is so dangerous, in fact, that fire department, HSD, WSDOT and outreach organizations are under instructions not to enter the area without police escort. And SPD clarified that “police escort” doesn’t mean a single officer: it requires a significant presence to ensure safety of personnel going into the area.  Even then, the public health conditions provide further hazards: in Scoggins’ words, “you never know what you are going to walk through.” He described an SFD call last month for a fire at night, in which the fire fighters followed the glow of the fire on the way in (it’s otherwise pitch black there at night) but then only after the fire was extinguished did they realize that they had stepped and dragged their equipment through human waste, and the operation turned from firefighting to decontamination.

That was prologue to the conversation that many wanted to have: how to help the residents who are living there. The restrictions on personnel entering the area means that the people living there are underserved by the city’s human services and outreach organizations. The city staff  did explain that outreach workers will work around the periphery of the area, and since many residents leave during the day to go to work, they catch some people coming or going. But that is a poor and inefficient way to serve that community’s needs. Council member O’Brien agreed with Burgess that it’s deplorable that this situation exists, and that he would like to see everyone moved out of the area and stabilized with shelter and access to services.

The Council members fired lots of questions and suggestions at Scoggins and the team members on things they could start doing now, such as putting in dumpsters and porta-potties to start cleaning up the human and solid waste. Scoggins said that the assessment team already began meeting last week to shift their focus to solutions, and that a new policy and approach should be forthcoming in the near future.

One of the issues the group faces is that there are so many stakeholders. The property directly underneath I-5 is owned and maintained by WSDOT; the surrounding greenbelt area is owned and managed by Seattle’s Parks Department. So that means that just in terms of government stakeholders, the list begins with:

  • Washington State Patrol
  • Seattle Police Department
  • Seattle Fire Department
  • Seattle Human Services Department
  • Seattle Parks Department
  • King County-Seattle Department of Public Health
  • Seattle Public Utilities (responsible for the stormwater system)

But that’s just the start. Obviously representatives from the NGO outreach organizations that work with the homeless need to be involved as well. Harrell also invited two advocates for the homeless community, Craig Thompson and Jack Binetto, to participate in today’s meeting and is helping to get them seats at the table as well.  And Council member Sally Bagshaw asked to either participate in the process or at least be “a fly on the wall.”

It’s great to have all of those voices represented in the process. At some point, though, it introduces a risk that with so many viewpoints, separate departmental budgets, and bosses, the group may have a difficult time settling on a plan that will make a difference. Council members Burgess, Bagshaw and Harrell all pointed out that the problem of the Jungle has been going on for decades without a solution, which makes it hard to imagine one emerging in a short period of time at the scale necessary to make a difference.

Funding will be an issue too, and for some of the departments creates a catch-22. State funding for some of the necessary health and human services have dried up; and to try to argue for more requires hard data, as was testified to this morning. But for a problem as large as this one, gathering data is neither easy nor cheap. You need funding to get the data, and you need the data to get the funding.

Still, some things are happening immediately. Scoggins said that the large number of propane tanks are an imminent risk, and SFD and SPD crews are returning to the site tomorrow to remove them. HSD gathered some data on the human needs during the assessment, and is continuing to work to improve that data, including the array of reasons that residents are living there: poverty, drug use, untreated mental health issues, male/female couples or residents with pets (most sanctioned shelters don’t allow couples or pets), limited documentation/identification that would give them access to other services, or simply having more personal belongings than could be accommodated at a shelter. Council member Herbold emphasized the importance of gathering that data on human needs for the residents and asked for a detailed plan of how the information-gathering would happen.

SFD and SPD both acknowledged that access to the area is difficult; there is essentially one road in and one road out. They are looking at ways to improve that, which would allow for greater law enforcement presence but also enable other services better and safer access.

Both Sawant and Bagshaw pushed for putting porta-potties and dumpsters at the site as soon as possible; that raises a larger issue of whether doing so would cross a border into sanctioning the encampment, which wasn’t discussed today but is likely to be a topic among the working team.

Thompson and Binetto submitted to the Council a set of written recommendations on how to move forward; Bagshaw gave them a quick glance during the briefing and commented that she thought they were “on the right track.”

There was a fair amount of hand-wringing by the Council about how to think about the problem in all its dimensions and what kind of response is appropriate. Burgess commented, “We would not allow this to happen in any other part of the city; why would we allow it to happen here?” (echoing similar comments made about the 23rd Avenue construction project mess last week). Sawant made clear that she didn’t want this to be a justification for “sweeps” which would just push the people (and the problem) to other parts of the city, but instead it should be a justification for delivering real services and solutions to the people living there; O’Brien agreed. Bagshaw closed the briefing arguing that action must be taken, pointing out “This is an emergency; we can’t just take it one day at a time and hope it will get better.” Later in the meeting after the briefing concluded, Bagshaw told Sawant, “There’s a lot more than rhetoric; many of us have been working on solutions. I want to be working with you on this, but I don’t want it to be class warfare. I want everyone at the table.”

Expect that Bagshaw’s Human Services and Public Health Committee will continue to take the lead for the Council on the issue, and that we will begin to hear specific recommendations on an appropriate response in the next few weeks.