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The Jungle: Looking for compassionate, safe solutions together

March 1, 2016

Recently the state Senate transportation budget included resources to clean up the unsanctioned homeless encampment under I-5 in Seattle known as The Jungle, a concentrated area that is extremely dangerous including multiple murders, sexual assaults, extreme drug activity, fires, environmental damage  and more.  City officials have responded to more than 750 calls for emergency assistance in five years. The debate of how to compassionately and safely clean up and secure the area has been a source of dialogue in various shades for years.

Last week I issued a statement in which I failed to accurately and fully explain my views for how we might safely clean up and responsibly secure the area, coordinate between city, county and state officials and effectively help with genuine homeless transitional support services.  As a result of my overly broad statement, the notion of a large, generic fence may have been seen as Plan A from Olympia.  It is not.

First, state DOT, Seattle fire, police, utility and public health representatives testified that officials will not move forward with full scale clean up and safety work until hands-on, short term, transitional support services are identified and coordinated.  This includes emergency shelter access, mental health, addiction services and more to connect people to real services.  It may perhaps include additional sanctioned, semi-sanctioned encampment areas or even surplus property, as well as medium and long term efforts around housing first options.  City, county and state officials must double down on transitional support services as part of the emergency declaration.  And this does not include, in my view, sanctioning this dangerous area aside I-5 as an endorsed encampment with plumbing, water and other facilities.

I recognize that cleaning up and securing The Jungle slowly, carefully, compassionately and with hands-on support services is not a department down the hall.  It is complex and difficult and requires real resources and strategies.  Public safety officials stated it may take 6-9 months or longer before this approach would be ready.  The language in the budget bill is extremely flexible for city and state officials and safety approaches may include limited fencing, lighting, access modifications and more.

Mayor Ed Murray’s administration has made it clear that a coordinated, holistic approach is vital for all parties–city, county and state–to safely, compassionately and responsibly move forward.  I share the Mayor’s view that the state’s role does not begin and end with cleaning up around I-5, it also must provide broader financial support to city and county officials to assist with the full range of homeless services.  We are fighting in Olympia for more resources.

Second, my statement about installing a fence was overly broad and poorly outlined, and I failed to articulate that I believe we need modest, limited fencing in select, highly dangerous and volatile areas where individuals can access and impact the freeway endangering themselves and the public.  I regret not being clearer that cleaning up and securing the most volatile and dangerous parts of The Jungle likely requires limited, targeted fencing not expansive installations.  The ultimate decision of logistics should be made by not by elected officials but by a coordinated technical and policy examination by city, county and state officials.

Still, statements from some local public officials about the use of any safety fencing near The Jungle–a dangerous area where murder, sexual assault and violence is a cold hard reality–being equated to installation of a xenophobic wall along the national border is deeply offensive and below our city’s civic dialogue.  The rhetoric inflames debate and thoughtful analysis rather than contributing in any meaningful way to real problem solving of one of the most complex societal issues facing our nation.

Third, lost in the tactical debate and logistics over clean up and safety fencing is the broader battle in Olympia of statewide support to address our state’s homeless crisis.   We have fought ferociously for more resources across the board in mental health, addiction services, domestic violence, emergency shelter support, youth beds, crisis LGBT outreach support, health care, public safety and much more.  Our Senate Democratic team proposed a massive infusion of state dollars in additional services, and the final budget terms are likely to increase priority spending on key programs.

Our current 2015-2017 two year budget–combining state and federal dollars–includes a total of approximately $631.3 million for alcohol and substance abuse services statewide, with many focused on Seattle. Thanks to House budget writers last year this reflects an increase in total funds of $180.9 million (40 percent) from the 2013-15 biennium. This includes an increase of $3.1 million in total funds for increased substance use disorder treatment costs.

Our current budget includes the largest increase in mental health services in state history.
We increased mental health funding by $105.8 million.  It includes $11.8 million for secure and semi-secure crisis residential centers, HOPE beds, and outreach to street youth programs.  We include an additional $1 million in Washington Youth and Families Fund grants for supportive services in conjunction with housing to address underlying causes of youth and family homelessness.

On the capital or infrastructure side, we include $75 million in Housing Trust Fund dollars designed to support a minimum of 1,900 homes and 500 seasonal beds.  We include $32 million for essential Community‐Based Behavioral Health Beds.  There is $2 million for for new community‐based substance abuse and mental health facilities.  At the institutional level, we included $57.8 million for state Mental Health Facilities (Eastern and Western State Hospitals).

The issue of homelessness crosses every boundary of our social fabric.  Families struggling with homelessness on the streets of our city, county and state shakes the status quo of our sense of justice, our societal complacency and our vision of ourselves as a community.  It agitates us–in a healthy and forceful way– to reflect more deeply on how a wealthy nation can allow such inequality.

It forces us to act.

Your partner in service,

Reuven.

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