The Jungle isn’t a “refuge,” and turning a blind eye isn’t compassion

After years of turning a blind eye to the festering problem that is Seattle’s largest homeless encampment, the Jungle, the City of Seattle is finally doing something about it. Mayor Ed Murray deserves credit for making the decision. Ignoring the Jungle and the problems it creates is not compassion.

With the mayor’s encouragement, the Union Gospel Mission is doing a two-week outreach to those living in the Jungle, offering them shelter and services. Under Murray’s plan, the area will be swept at the end of the outreach program.

That might not happen, Danny Westneat reports, if some on the city council have their way. They oppose shutting down the Jungle, believing the plan is doomed to fail.

That would be a mistake. The city, it has been noted, has performed sweeps in the past but the Jungle always came back. But noting that the job has been done half-heartedly in the past is not a reason that it should not be done well now. The area needs to be cleared, and then kept clear.

The city cannot allow the Jungle to continue being the cesspool, quite literally, that it is now. No one is suggesting that sweeping the area will do much to solve Seattle’s homelessness issue, but the Jungle site itself creates its own specific problems. The preferred solution of some on the city council – garbage cans, porta-potties, and lighting – will ameliorate some of the concerns but not solve them.

The Jungle is large, dark, difficult to access, and far from any residences and businesses. That makes it a uniquely dangerous place for law enforcement to visit. Westneat notes that some of the homeless from the Jungle have now moved near the BMW dealership close to the stadiums. At the very least, that is a far safer environment for police to enter.

Seattle Weekly called the Jungle a “refuge to hundreds of Seattleites”. That’s an odd choice of words. “Refuge” connotes safety and respite, but the Jungle provides precisely the opposite. Westneat writes, “On the first day canvassing the wooded hillsides, the five-member Union Gospel team walked up to a site where a woman was being sexually assaulted.” If the Jungle is a “refuge,” it’s from prying eyes, police presence, and any pressures to cease destructive behaviors.

The people living in the Jungle need help. They need food, shelter, and treatment for mental health and addiction issues. Critics say the sweeps won’t get the job done. Neither, it should be noted, will garbage cans and lights. These are the people, as psychiatrist and columnist Charles Krauthammer describes them, we see “sleeping on grates” who we allow to “die with their rights on.”

The coming sweep is the motivation some need to accept help. Jeff Lilley of the Union Gospel Mission told Westneat:

“We’ve been doing outreach in the Jungle twice a week for years,” Lilley says. “Now, because of this deadline, people are responding. They all know about the coming sweep. If the city pulls the timeline away, then there’s no motivation whatsoever for the folks in there to talk to us.”

It reminds me of some of the problems that cropped up when California voters did away with many minimum sentence requirements. The threat of jail time is often the only inducement for some to enter into, and stick with, a drug treatment program. I wrote last November, “Addicts want to continue feeding their addictions. For many, the stark choice – stick to your drug treatment or go to jail – is the only reason they stay in treatment programs. If you take away the stick, they have no interest in the carrot.”

In this situation the “stick” is knowing the mayor is serious about no longer turning a blind eye to the Jungle and the serial criminal and environmental abuses that take place there. The message the city council is sending, perhaps unintentionally, is “Never mind, you may not have to worry about it.” For people who need an incentive to seek help, that’s the opposite of helpful.
-Rob McKenna

It’s up to all of us to “support the supporters” who have the tools to help a vulnerable population. Please, consider a donation to Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission today as they reach out to those living in the Jungle.

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Rob McKenna
Rob served two terms as Washington’s Attorney General, from 2005 to 2013. He successfully argued three cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and negotiated three of the largest consumer financial protection settlements in national history, all involving mortgage lending and servicing. He is a recognized leader in the development of consumer protections on the internet, in data protection and privacy regulation.