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Police shooting stalls closure of the Jungle homeless encampment

The Jungle homeless encampment. Credit: Alex Garland

A Seattle police officer shot and killed a man Tuesday afternoon, just feet from where city and state officials had begun the official closing of the Jungle, the vast homeless encampment beneath and around I-5.

Police officers were on hand to monitor what was intended to be the final sweep of the embattled encampment when two veteran officers witnessed a knife fight between two men, said Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole. One officer “discharged” their weapon while intervening.

Both of the men were sent to the hospital, one with minor knife injuries, the other with serious injuries from the gunshot. The shooting victim later died.

O’Toole repeatedly said that the shooting was not related to the cleanup efforts. She called the officers’ encounter with them a “coincidence,” a slightly confusing distinction considering that the officers were there for the cleanup.

She did, however, say that the fight “underscores the danger in this particular area.”

Andre Mydgett, who has lived in the Jungle for three years, knew the two men in question — Tony and Mike — but not why they were fighting.

“I’m pretty sure Mike was charged up and not having a good time about [leaving the Jungle],” he said.

Tuesday was meant to be the deadline for the residents of the Jungle to leave. Earlier in the day, in a SoDo building branded with the Seal of Seattle, roughly 50 city employees drank coffee and ate muffins before zipping up their yellow jumpsuits and driving to the Jungle, like worker bees leaving the hive.

At the same time, just to the north, state and city officials gave a surgical breakdown of a project that has been months, if not years, in the making: officially locking down the 3-mile stretch of homeless encampments on the edges of Beacon Hill and underneath I-5, known as the East Duwamish Greenbelt to some and the Jungle to others.

But in the wake of the “officer involved shooting,” the mayor’s office said cleanup efforts were halted, with no immediate signal as to when they would begin again.

No place embodies Seattle’s angst over homelessness more than the Jungle. The dusty tracks of tents can be described as at once inhumane and perfectly safe, depending on which anecdote is pulled that day. It is a microcosm of the vicious debate over where, when or if the city should tolerate camping.

Tuesday’s incident, regardless of the details, will surely boil that debate further.

The Jungle is many things depending on where you stand. At its peak, you could look down the corridor beneath the highway and see tents clustered around every pillar, like mushrooms around trees. In some corners, you’d find people too nervous to leave their tents, for fear their belongings would be stolen. There are needles, human waste and occasional violence. But in other corners are ornate shanties — tents with added layers of quilts, tapestries, blankets, even plywood — and those who describe their neighbors as family.

But for Mayor Ed Murray, the Jungle is above all a public health disaster — a place of “rapes,” “violent crime,” and “bike chop shops” as he described in a heated text to Councilmember Sally Bagshaw in May. A report from the fire department supported this lens. Although his decision to end camping in the area was perhaps made long ago, it became urgent for the mayor when several people were killed last January.

Since then, the threat of closure has spiked and then cratered several times over. Several drafts of a plan went through the City Council (spurring the texts) before the most recent one was approved last month.

In the meantime, the city has partnered with the Union Gospel Mission to carry out what’s been called “intensive outreach.”

UGM head Jeff Lilley said Tuesday that there were only thirteen people remaining in the Jungle, down from as many as 500.  But where all of those people have gone is unclear. Lilley said that 25 percent have accepted space elsewhere, which might mean shelter or a different encampment. Some, he said, left town. As for the remainder, the answer is simply, “We don’t know.”

“None of this is necessary,” said Mydgett, referring to the closure. “That’s a lot of money they spent to do this. And for what?”

Early Tuesday morning, standing behind a podium made from a traffic cone, representatives from the Washington and Seattle Departments of Transportation, as well as Lilley, discussed how the closure would unfold. As they did, about 20 protestors chanted behind them, drowning out most of the details.

Advisor to the mayor Scott Lindsay said that, ideally, there would be no arrests of people still inside the Jungle. But because the area has been officially condemned, he said, arrests were not an impossibility.

The shooting represents a collision of two of Seattle’s most serious issues: homelessness and police reform. O’Toole made a point of saying that the two officers were trained in crisis intervention and de-escalation, as all officers are. She added that she hopes the officers’ actions prevented something more serious from happening.

But despite O’Toole’s assurances that the officers were properly trained, the fact that they responded to a knife fight with a gun will inevitably be a point of contention. Following the event, Real Change founder Tim Harris quickly posted on Facebook, “SPD brought guns to a knife fight. I think that’s in the SPD conflict de-escalation manual.”

O’Toole said many times that her information on the shooting was preliminary. The department’s Force Investigations Team will take weeks to complete its investigation.

Mydgett, the longtime Jungle resident, did not deny that dangerous things happen there, but thinks that shouldn’t reflect on the whole area.

“These things happen to people that are doing these things,” he said, referring to the knife fight. “That’s the bottom line. You can’t put that on everybody else. Anybody that’s caught up in stuff like that, they were hanging around with people who do things like that. So you reap what you sow.”

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