Morning Fizz

Council Committee Greenlights Jungle Sweep, Cues Up Larger Fight Over Unsanctioned Encampments

Council committee votes 4-2 to sweep East Duwamish Greenbelt

By Josh Feit September 15, 2016

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1. In a precursor to the pending headline discussion between the city council and the mayor’s office over protocols for addressing unsanctioned homeless camping, the council’s human services committee voted yesterday on the city’s “operation plan” to specifically remove people from East Duwamish Greenbelt under I-5, also known as “The Jungle.”

Ever since three people were murdered in the Jungle in January, the unauthorized encampment has become a symbol to advocates of cleaning up homeless encampments who say unsafe areas need to be shut down. More pressing, in this instance, the state department of transportation, which owns most of the land in the Jungle, is getting ready to do major I-5 infrastructure upgrades there.

The city is cued up to remove the estimated 60 people who remain in the Jungle after three months of intense outreach by the Union Gospel Mission (on behalf of the city) to the 357 people who were originally camping there. Of those 357, 70 took up UGM offers for shelter or housing, and/or human services help. However, a couple of hundred people, as council member Mike O’Brien repeatedly pointed out at yesterday’s hearing, have simply been moved onto the streets.

O’Brien and council member Kshama Sawant, who herself noted that 90 percent of people who are removed from encampments in sweeps simply come back to that site and/or do not get help, both voted against the resolution, protesting that there weren’t any specific plans for what would happen to the remaining people who will be swept out. The committee vote was 4-2, with chair Sally Bagshaw, Tim Burgess, Bruce Harrell, and Lorena González voting to support the operation. González made a long statement before her vote, however, calling for a long term assessment of “The Edge” (another term for the Jungle) “to make sure we continue to have an understanding of what’s going on there.”  She also wanted the city to get a handle on the public safety impact that moving people out of the Jungle into nearby neighborhoods such as Beacon Hill and the ID will have on public safety in those spots for both the displaced homeless and "housed people."

Mayor Murray’s representative at the table yesterday, public safety special assistant Scott Lindsay, directly pushed back on O’Brien and Sawant. First, in a tense disagreement with O’Brien during the discussion before the vote, Lindsay contested O’Brien’s statement that “it seems likely that a couple hundred people were just pushed out into the street.” Lindsay shot back: “Wong, council member. Nobody’s been pushed out into the street. As of this point, all we have done is sent outreach workers. But we’ve communicated that it’s the intent of the state and city that people are no longer living in an area that is incredibly unsafe and unhealthy.” O’Brien responded: “I think we can agree that no one has gone in there yet and said ‘you can no longer be here,’ but we have also…taken actions that for a couple hundred people, they’ve decided this isn’t a place for us anymore.”

Lindsay also directly contradicted Sawant. Sawant gave a speech about the larger causes of homelessness and said there was a “fundamental question” about the plan which was “presupposing the idea that there will be actual shelter options for everybody, [but] I don’t understand where your confidence comes from. If that were true, why do we have homelessness at all in this city?”

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Focusing on the I-5 plan, she continued: “I don’t see how the homeless people in this area actually have viable solutions. It’s well-intentioned, but easy for housed people to say ‘we have all these options, you’ve got to take one of these options.’ [But] I don’t think we’re seeing it from the homeless people’s standpoint. If they’re refusing what we feel is a better situation than being homeless, then obviously there has to be a rational reason. There not being irrational. They’re not there because they prefer to have a demoralizing situation for themselves. Homelessness persists because there aren’t real adequate solutions.”

Sawant felt the solutions had to include money for “actual social services” for things like treating drug addiction. And she concluded, “no matter how many words you put in to make this seem humane, it is still a sweep.”

Lindsay responded: “Here’s where I disagree. Many of the individuals are not making rational choices. I cannot assume that.” Lindsay said Union Gospel’s work showed that many people who rejected the outreach were suffering from substance abuse disorders where “opiates were hijacking the brain and not allowing individuals to make rational decisions except to serve that disease. That is the predominant issue affecting this population.”

Lindsay (and the Union Gospel Mission worker at the table) explained that the outreach workers had made real offers of shelter, housing, and services to all 357 people. And at this point the remaining people needed to be removed from this “extremely” dangerous spot for the homeless, first responders, and WSDOT workers. 

“We have offered everyone here someplace better to stay,” Lindsay concluded, “but at the end of the day, the city and state need to take responsibility and say it’s not safe for you to be here anymore. Almost any other place outdoors in this city would be safer than in the East Duwamish Greenbelt under the freeway.”   

An irony in all of this, is that the main place—"the go to" alternative as González labeled it—for many of the former Jungle campers (now counted among those who have been successfully relocated) is in an unsanctioned homeless encampment in SoDo, the Royal Brougham site. That site will soon be subject to whatever clean up protocols the mayor and council eventually agree on next.

2. My latest magazine feature, where I look at the city's debate over regulating Airbnb (Laissez-F'aire Bnb?), is out. The council went into the discussion thinking they had an easy populist win lined up against the gig economy bogeyman. But things haven't gone as planned.

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From the lead:

Derr took the microphone to praise his proposal. His regulations, she said, would protect single-family neighborhoods from losing their charm to an impersonal networking concern like Airbnb. “Will non–owner occupied Airbnbs have a negative effect on the sense of community?” she asked rhetorically. 

There was a smattering of polite applause for Derr, but it was the next speaker, Charlie Cunniff, in opposition to Burgess’s regulations, who brought down the house. A gray-bearded 61-year-old in owl glasses, Cunniff recently moved into a 600-square-foot place in Columbia City to scale back for retirement and to be closer to his grandchildren, leaving his Fremont duplex after 13 years. 

Burgess’s regulations were aimed at people like Cunniff, who was now renting out the Fremont place short term through Airbnb. “Basically, it pays our day-to-day living,” the retiree later told me. “It’s how we keep ourselves going, food and gas and presents for the kids. Utility bills.”

The crowd, fired up in solidarity with Cunniff’s testimony, eventually earned a scolding from a frustrated Burgess after they jeered a city staffer who supported the proposal. The day hadn’t gone as Burgess imagined.

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