The Jungle

I’ve been admittedly busy lately. From going to walks with policy makers to discuss homelessness policy, the panel presentation with Hanna Brooks Olsen & Mercedes Elizalde, and recently having conversations with legislators on what the state can do better – nobody told me losing an election would be this much work.

Joni Balter, me, Randy "Enforce the Law" Pepple, and Deborah Wang; Photo credit: KUOW

Joni Balter, me, Randy "Enforce the Law" Pepple, and Deborah Wang; Photo credit: KUOW

Recently, that has also included rage-posting. I have long been a fan of the occasional rage-post on the Facebook when something that I believe is absolutely asinine occurs. This last Friday, prior to appearing as a guest panelist on KUOW’s Week in Review, I did just that.

Sen. Reuven Carlyle; 100% cool 99% of the time.

Sen. Reuven Carlyle; 100% cool 99% of the time.

As reported by Heidi Groover of the Stranger, the State Senate has added a little line item to move $1,000,000.00 of transportation money into a “cleanup” effort for the encampments that have popped up under I-5 to the west of Beacon Hill. I know some people don’t like to refer to this area as “The Jungle,” but I will. As initially reported, these funds are designed to “clean” up community members living under I-5 in tents and other structures, and put up a fence around the perimeter to keep people out.

On the heels of the constant prodding from the State for provide more housing, social services, and cleanup of existing (and abandoned) encampments, this is the one thing that looks to be coming out of Olympia in 2016. Republicans have been very focused on bathrooms and pride flags, but 100% not interested in helping community members experiencing homelessness. The House has pushed through increased funding for housing first, only to be stymied by a Senate majority that is hell-bent on solving the homelessness crisis by just letting people die. This was evidenced during the Week in Review segment on the Jungle, wherein Randy Pepple – former Chief of Staff and Campaign Manager for Republican Rob McKenna – offered one “solution” to the Jungle. “Enforce the law.”

In his mind, Mr. Pepple seems to believe that if we enforce the law, people will just go somewhere else or take the services – with all of the barriers and strings attached – that are offered. Despite more and more data that shows this does not work (which, frankly, just supports what service providers have known for years). Rest assured, I had no problem pointing out that a strategy of just “enforce the law” means people will die, and that Mr. Pepple was actively advocating for that model.

A small part of the Jungle. Photo credit: Seattle Times

A small part of the Jungle. Photo credit: Seattle Times

There was mocking from Joni Balter of my comment regarding a modicum of safety felt by some residents of the Jungle. I wish I would have asked Ms. Balter and Mr. Pepple if they had ever actually been in an encampment, or spoken with someone who has lived in one. I have. There is universal recognition that the Jungle is not safe. But, compared to other options, some find it a better choice. This is our fault as a city, region, and state. We have created this situation where we do not provide basic housing – something that damned well should be a human right – and then have actively worked to sweep people out of sight and out of mind so we don’t have to actually see the effects of abject poverty. The Jungle is our creation, and it is our responsibility to address our creation in a humane way (that ultimately lead to steps that discourage encampments deep in the jungle or right alongside highway lanes of traffic).

A resident of the Jungle. Hint: he's a person. Photo Credit: KUOW

A resident of the Jungle. Hint: he's a person. Photo Credit: KUOW

You see, I don’t agree with the idea of actually installing plumbing and toilets in the Jungle. I do support bringing in port-a-potties, dumpsters, and sharps containers as an immediate step to improve conditions while we implement a meaningful strategy. I know Mr. Pepple just assumes that people won’t keep their living area clean if they can, but my experience working with people shows me otherwise. In addition to creating a cleaner space, this gesture might very well show that we are, in fact, serious about treating people like people. By beginning to rebuild trust with some of our most vulnerable community members, I believe we can set up a long-term success strategy. Frankly, folks experiencing homelessness have every reason to distrust and fear government officials. From the rhetoric allowed to be spewed at some community meetings, to harassment from police, to outright violent attacks by firefighters, there is just cause to be wary. But if we begin to build that trust, I believe we can begin to tackle the long-term needs with more success.

Barbara Poppe - getting $80k to state the obvious. #WantThatJob

Barbara Poppe - getting $80k to state the obvious. #WantThatJob

That also means we have to be willing, as a city, to provide more band-aides – ie: encampments and tiny house villages (THVs). I understand that the city recently spent $80,000.00 for a study that found encampments are not ideal. That the city will spend $80,000.00 for a Captain Obvious result is actually kind of frightening. But we are not going to build safe shelter for the 3,000 people living without overnight. We still don’t even know what that should look like in many cases. Rapid Rehousing continues to be hit-or-miss, and is not helped by the skyrocketing, unregulated rents, or landlords who discriminate on income source.

So how does this all play with the current crisis, along with addressing the Jungle, and Sen. Carlyle’s attempt to secure funding from the State (as requested by the city)?

For one, the city can and should step up efforts to fast-track more sanctioned and semi-sanctioned encampment sites. We don’t currently have the capacity necessary to provide full wrap-around services, but we do have the space to provide more space that is safer than underneath a freeway. We could well utilize some park space (the Colonnade, which is a half block from where I live and is close to transit, could easily house a half dozen or so tents with sanitation on-site), and work to ensure that people currently living the jungle have somewhere better to go.

We can provide support for those moves, collaborating with non-profit organizations and volunteers, with an understanding that, as a city, we will not be using these moves as a means to harass, arrest, or otherwise disrupt further the lives of some of our most vulnerable community members. Rebuilding trust with government is a step toward making clear to people that when we have the housing available for Housing First, we will mean it – not some bait and switch.

Not Nickelsville - Not Sanctioned - but still housing people.

Not Nickelsville - Not Sanctioned - but still housing people.

This is a plan that will take time – months even. But with the conditions of the Jungle, and the safety problem it includes, I do believe we should prioritize finding safe spaces for the 400-600 residents living underneath this section of I-5. Simply waiting for the state funding to clean up the Jungle with no plan in place means, frankly, that folks will move deeper into hiding, or re-scatter throughout the city (Hi Ballard & Magnolia!).

One of the things that I appreciate about our Democratic lawmakers is that they are, in fact, very responsive. Following my Facebook rage-post, Sen. Carlyle could have ignored me. He could have shot off an email telling me my argument was bunk. There could have been a phone call explaining to me why I was wrong and need to sit down and shut up.

Nickelsville - Sanctioned - and housing people

Nickelsville - Sanctioned - and housing people

Instead, Sen. Carlyle and I had a long, very positive conversation about the situation. Instead of writing off my concerns, Sen. Carlyle committed to working in what ways he can to ensure that the city does participate in providing safe space for people living under I-5, and is not using this as an opportunity to have the State basically do a million dollar sweep. Having seen Sen. Carlyle work, I know I can trust him to follow-through. Lesson of the day: remember that our side is better than their side, and sometimes phone calls are a better option than rage-posts.

The Jungle is not safe. But to say it just “happened” simply ignores the failures of our systems to effectively address homelessness for years. And a big chunk of that failure: a focus on making streets aesthetically pleasing (and sweeping away the “undesireables”), which combined with high-barrier housing and service options, has led to what we see. The continued divestment in human infrastructure by the State (which is only now starting to be reversed) and County has exacerbated this problem. It’s going to take a Democratic takeover of Olympia to get back on track with state-wide solutions.

And in the interim, it is going to require that we hold our local leaders to account, and ensure that we are creating safe spaces for people to sleep, not throwing up our hands and ignoring those that are unsafe. I continue to believe that our current council (at least a majority) are on board with this approach.