Waiting for the Jungle's homeless cleansing

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Residents of the Jungle wait for its closure.

The deadline to leave the Jungle is June 6. At least that’s what Cassandra, camped in a clearing on the slopes of Beacon Hill, was told. That’s what Lane was told, sitting in front of a fire as rush hour rushed overhead. That’s what Michael was told at his tent, cozied against a highway pillar above Airport Way.

On Wednesday, Mayor Ed Murray smudged the boundaries of a hard timeline for emptying the areas near and under I-5, apparently contradicting the message from his staff a week before. Later that day, at a Seattle City Council committee meeting, his public safety adviser, Scott Lindsay, said, “There is no hard timeline.” While people will be asked to leave, only when outreach teams from Union Gospel Mission “let us know that they have made every effort and connected with every person who is willing to engage then the transition process will begin,” said Lindsay.

But if the message has changed, those to whom it’s most relevant haven’t been told. So for now, they wait for a June 6 closing time, fully aware and largely skeptical of services available to them. They are tenants in a condemned space, at once believing that no one really can make them leave while also chewing on a nagging worry that, if the plan is successful, they don’t know what’s next.

For a space as pilloried as the Jungle, it is wrapped in a tense calm on a cloudy Thursday morning. A Seattle Department of Transportation truck with bushwacking gear waits at the mouth of the trails behind Dr. Jose Rizal park on Beacon Hill. Two men in white jump suits — almost hazmat suits — sit in the cab of the truck, scanning some kind of list. For now, they wait.

The Jungle is made up of pockets. Some parts match the common descriptions of filth, while others are neighborly and clean.

The Beacon Hill side indeed feels like a jungle. It is shaded and overgrown with tall trees, nettles and blackberries. There are signs that, once upon a time, the parks department or the state put some work here: occasional cement steps descend down the steepest points and concrete pillars, where there could have been safety wires or a handrail, line the footpaths near the top. Now, however, it is left largely to the people who live there.

Cassandra has lived with her husband and brother in her clearing for three years. At first blush, the area is a bit messy — old clothes and garbage bags scatter the forest floor. But what trash there is rings the circle of tents. The essential living space is clean; the same mess would certainly exist for anyone without a trash can. Cassandra calls this area the Old Jungle. She prefers it to the area under I-5 because it’s quieter, less populated. Even the homeless can have their streaks of NIMBYism.

Part of the mayor’s plan includes two weeks of intensive outreach, led by the Union Gospel Mission. But in the greenest parts of the jungle, that outreach is perhaps not quite so intense. Cassandra knows that the Mission has been working on outreach, but says she hasn’t seen them much where she’s at.

Still, it’s not like Cassandra didn’t know she could seek shelter. It’s just that she lives with her husband and her dog, Little Foot — a massive and playful pit bull, leashed with thick rope — and hasn’t found anywhere that can take them all. Besides, her clearing’s not so bad. The skyline is hidden behind tree canopy. Close your eyes and strain your ears and the sound of traffic from I-5 could be a river.

“We’re not out to harm anyone,” she says. “We’re just trying to survive.” She’ll do that until she’s made to leave. And if that time comes, she and her family will go elsewhere and camp again — the outskirts of Seattle, perhaps.

But, in the meantime, she will wait and see.

Even for the uninitiated, the paths of the Jungle are intuitive, pounded out by people taking the easiest routes from A to B. So by simply walking, one piece eventually leads to the next.

The area beneath I-5 is known by some who live there as the Caves, separate from the Jungle above. For all the controversy of putting up a fence, that area has been fenced for years. But it’s nothing more than a gnat-like nuisance, solved with even the weakest wire cutters.

Southbound drivers turn their heads toward anyone walking along the freeway. Even from hundreds of feet, they make eye contact. It’s a small thing, but there’s something unsettling about hundreds of people passing small judgments about an out-of-bounds human.

Beneath I-5, the expansion joints are as loud as everyone says they are, resonating as cars pass. That's where Lane hovers near a fire, lit safely in a dug-out fire pit. He’s a twitchy man of about 30. About five other people linger nearby, some sleeping. One woman, who doesn't give her name, eats popcorn from a bag.

Everyone here knows the mayor's cleanout is coming. “It’s sad,” says the woman. “This is our home.”

Down here, outreach has been much more steady than along Beacon Hill. Lane says three or four groups from the Mission have come through over the last several days. “They say, ‘Are you interested in coming to a shelter?’ ” None in this spot say they felt pressured — nobody has asked them to pray. In general, the outreach workers are seen as nice people. But, as with Cassandra, the availability of shelter is nothing new to residents here. They’ve known where to find it. “I like it here,” says the woman.

Among this group, there is a sense that keeping them out will not be possible. Officials have tried before, says the woman. She and Lane don’t have plans for what’s next, other than to stay. They, too, will wait.

Down the road, still beneath I-5, as the highway climbs a bit higher off the ground, more and bigger tents dot the airy expanse. Michael grips a bottle of orange-flavored Vodka, then a Rainier. But he’s articulate. He, too, cites the June 6 deadline. He’s the first person with a specific departure date of next Monday. But his plan is thin — he says he has baseball cards worth hundreds: Nolan Ryan, early Mariners, and his prized possession, Hall of Fame pitcher Warren Spahn. He will sell them, he says.

He’s spoken with outreach workers, but hasn’t taken them up on their offers. He says he might go to FareStart to look for work. But they require sobriety and Michael, at about 9 in the morning, would not pass that test, at least not on this Thursday.

If the Seattle City Council gets its way, the clearing out of the Jungle may come a bit slower than its residents have been told. Councilmember Sally Bagshaw has floated a resolution that states the council’s desire to focus more on coordinating services, expanding 24-hour shelters and making the Jungle more livable, while shifting away from clearing it out on any particular timeline.

The mayor has retained a sense of urgency with regard to closing the space, although he did say in his Wednesday press conference that if council wants to slow down, the effort will slow down.

But those conversations haven’t trickled into the Jungle. What has made it are reporters, the outreach workers and, on Thursday, several people passing out fliers, trying to organize residents of the Jungle for a protest.

Anyone who's been evicted, received a layoff notice or even scheduled surgery will know how it feels to wait for the inevitable to arrive. There's a nervousness, but also some inkling that maybe it will never come. That was the case Thursday in the Jungle.

  

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