Mayor’s plan for clearing the “Jungle” scrutinized

Yesterday afternoon the City Council deliberated on the Mayor’s request for its blessing on his plan to clear out the East Duwamish Greenbelt Encampment (EDGE), often referred to as the “Jungle.”

Back at the end of May, the Council passed a resolution laying out specific conditions which must be met before the city could clean out the EDGE. Now the Mayor believes he has met the pre-conditions, and he is looking for approval to move forward. His office submitted an assessment of the extensive outreach efforts to EDGE residents performed by Union Gospel Mission, and a detailed operational plan for next steps.

This is further complicated because last month the Council and the Mayor bickered over a broader plan to update the city’s rules for cleanups of unsanctioned homeless encampments that culminated in two competing efforts: a task force with a broad set of stakeholders convened by the Mayor and Council member Bagshaw, and an ordinance drafted by homeless advocates.

But according to Scott Lindsey of the Mayor’s office, the EDGE is a special case for two reasons. First, it is uniquely unhealthy and unsafe for the current residents. Second, it has created a safety risk for Interstate 5 overhead since it has prevented critical highway maintenance by WSDOT: specifically, 7 of the 35 expansion joints in the section of I-5 over the EDGE are in urgent need of repair, and another 9 are overdue for inspection. Because of this, Lindsey argues, the encampment needs to be cleared and made safe and clean, the gravel access road needs to restored and extended to allow highway crews and first responders to access the area, the highway inspection and repair work must be done, storm water infrastructure must be fixed, and the Parks Department must clear overgrown brush and start regular maintenance.

The conversation turned to a review of the outreach work conducted by Union Gospel Mission (UGM). The UGM team was praised widely for their work, diligence and “scrappiness.” When they began in June, there were 357 people living in the EDGE. By the end of July when the assessment was completed, every one of them had been visited by outreach workers at least five times, with many of them logging 30 to 40 separate conversations. 70 people accepted offers of services and left the  EDGE. By July 31st 118 people remained, and as of yesterday that number had dropped to about 60. But as Council member O’Brien noted, that means that about 200 people moved elsewhere on their own. Many moved to an unsanctioned encampment on Royal Brougham Way, a natural “gravitation” because of its proximity to the EDGE as well as to Evergreen Treatment Service. The Royal Brougham site is actually state-owned property, but the city negotiated an agreement with the state to provide some basic services there, making it a semi-sanctioned encampment.

But that doesn’t even come close to accounting for the 200 people who left the EDGE on their own. According to city staff, the frequent outreach visits (escorted by Seattle police) was a deterrent to the drug-dealing community that frequented the location, so they moved elsewhere. Other EDGE residents likely got the message that they would eventually be forced to leave and simply packed up and moved to other unsanctioned encampment locations.

Simply pushing people to other locations around the city is exactly what the Council wanted to avoid, because it amounts to inhumane harassment of homeless people. But as council member Gonzalez pointed out, it also pushes problems around the city, and in the case of the EDGE the neighboring communities of Beacon Hill, SODO, and the International District have all felt the effects of homeless people streaming out from under the highway into the surrounding areas. Gonzalez also offered her own analysis of the effects of SPD’s “9.5 Block Strategy” in 2015 which stepped up policing in a troublesome area downtown; it reduced assaults, narcotics arrests and car prowls in the 9.5 block target area, but those same stats shot up in the International District, Pioneer Square, and citywide. Gonzalez fears that the EDGE cleanup, absent the broader, city-wide policy still in the works, is likely to do more harm than good.

Putting that aside for the moment, that still leaves the question of where the remaining 60 residents of the EDGE will go. Obviously that depends on their individual stories and needs, and will likely be a combination of shelters, rapid rehousing and transitional housing programs, and substance abuse or mental health treatment facilities. Some may utilize other assistance programs to relocate to another city where a family member or other verified source of housing and support exists for them. Lindsey claims that despite the fact that the Royal Brougham site is nearly full, with some consolidation he estimates there is room for another 25 tents here — and committed that if it hit its capacity the city would find another location to set up a sanctioned encampment. UGM believes they have 42 treatment beds available, though their program is faith based and requires bible study as one component. Still, the Mayor’s office feels confident that the resources exist to accommodate all 60 EDGE residents, including those from other service providers.

The operational plan to move forward involves three phases:

  • Phase 1 involves giving residents final notification that the site will be cleared, collecting and storing personal belongings, and continuing outreach. The council’s resolution requires a minimum of 3 days’ advance notice, but the team is allocating 10 days for this phase.
  • Phase 2 allows 10 days for preliminary clean up and large debris removal.
  • Phase 3 involves restoration of the access road, brush removal, and repair of the storm water and highway infrastructure. This is expected to take nine weeks.

Following the third phase, the effort turns to ongoing maintenance and “activation” of the area. The Parks Department will restore an existing bicycle and pedestrian trail through the area. Landscaping ideas are being discussed as well, though it was made clear that fencing off areas of the area to keep homeless people from returning is not an option being considered.

Council members O’Brien and Sawant both expressed concerns with the plan. Sawant is skeptical that there are real shelter options for all 60 remaining residents, emphasizing that she believed the residents were making rational decisions to stay there versus alternative shelter options that they found less appealing than simply staying put. Lindsey flatly rejected Sawant’s view, arguing that for the high percentage of homeless people in Seattle with substance abuse or mental health issues, their brains have been “hijacked” and they are not making rational decisions.

O’Brien acknowledged Lindsey’s argument, but then turned it around to question whether the estimate of available treatment beds was realistic — and in general whether the plan provided enough specifics as to what will happen to the 60 EDGE residents.

Both Sawant and O’Brien indicated that they would vote against approving the Mayor’s plan. O’Brien was willing to be convinced that the resources are in place to take care of the remaining EDGE residents, but he needed to see the details.

Gonzalez said that she would vote to approve the plan, but not without concerns and conditions. She was skeptical that the Royal Brougham encampment was a real option given that it’s nearly full, and she wants to see both an ongoing assessment for the EDGE area (joking that Council member Burgess undoubtedly will ask for it) and an assessment and plan for mitigating the impact on the neighboring communities — emphasizing public safety for both unsheltered and housed people.

Council member Bagshaw also brought up the Royal Brougham site, which she recently toured. She asked the city to add more sanitation services, as well as water. She also noted that the site is not managed by the city or a service provider and many of its residents and neighbors don’t consider it safe.  She said that the residents have asked for the city’s help in establishing an effective self-management system, and made a broader observation that given the 18-24 months it will take to roll out the broader strategy for responding to the homeless crisis, the city will likely need more well-managed, sanctioned encampments to get us through the next year and a half.

In the end, the resolution passed out of committee by a vote of 4-2, with Bagshaw, Burgess, Harrell and Gonzalez voting in favor, and O’Brien and Sawant voting against. That means it will advance to the full Council for final approval in two weeks with a divided report. To pass it still needs one more vote from among the three Council members not present today: Juarez, Johnson, and Herbold. And it will need to retain Gonzalez’s vote by meeting her conditions. Needless to say, Council approval of the Mayor’s plan is far from a sure thing.