Seattle is taking new action to move homeless people out of the Jungle, a greenbelt under Interstate 5 near downtown.
Once people are out, the state plans to clear out garbage and improve access roads.
“It’s going to be some pretty heavy duty roadway construction so once we get in there we need to have folks out of the area,” said Travis Phelps, spokesman for the Washington State Department of Transportation. “We won’t be able to work around tents or small communities in there, it just won’t be safe.”
Phelps said those who move out won’t have an easy time moving back in. It’s never been legal to camp in the Jungle, he noted, but now law enforcement will intervene when they find trespassers.
“Once we’re done with our roadway work … enforcement and other services will have a much easier time accessing that area than they do today,” he said.
Phelps said the state is still waiting for a green light from the city to go in and begin their work under I-5.
Until recently, the Jungle was a fuzzy dot on Seattle’s map – few people outside law enforcement and social services knew about it. Homeless people have lived in the area since the 1930s, according to one telling of the place, and its name is a nod to the hobo villages of previous centuries.
But on Jan. 26, the Jungle was thrust into the spotlight when two people were killed and three were injured in a shooting. One of the shooting victims still lives in the Jungle.
Seattle Mayor Ed Murray, who had made homelessness a priority for his administration just months before, zeroed in on the Jungle.
The Washington state Legislature provided $1 million to clean up the Jungle. The encampment was said to house 400 people at one time – including former African child soldiers who, having found no resources in this city, found a strange refuge under the freeway and spent their days nodding off on dusty couches.
For now, Jungle residents are being encouraged to move to a tent city nearby.
This new area is under state jurisdiction, which means the city had to get a permit from the state on Thursday to bring in port-a-potties and Dumpsters to the site at the corner of Royal Brougham and Airport Way in Sodo.
Brian Chandler of the Union Gospel Mission said the new site is ideal.
“People move around so much in the Jungle,” Chandler said. “It’s so hidden. So if we’re working with someone one day, the next day they might be gone or in another area. Whereas here, they stay put.”
Allan Kell, who has lived in this tent city for some time, said he’s noticed an uptick of residents.
He said the vibe currently is confusion.
“No one has conversations,” Kell said. “They’re so stuck. They need some guidance and some leadership to come in.”
He recommended a welcome tent for newcomers.
“The churches could come up and donate once a week, bring bread, bring the spirit and feed them,” Kell said. “Give them some love; it’s pretty dark here.”
He also requested water – for hydration and sanitation.
Kell used to live near CenturyLink Field. Before that, he lived in Kent. He said a relapse rendered him homeless. He didn’t seem to like his current living situation.
“It’s disgusting here,” he said. “We’re kneeling in feces.”
Others in the camp at Airport Way and Royal Brougham have been working hard over the last few months to create a sense of order and community.
To Tina, a camper there who didn't want to use her last name because she's fleeing an abusive partner, the sense of growing chaos at the camp comes from the influx of strangers being sent there.
"We don't want just anybody moving in. We've been able to kind of keep it down where we all still feel safe. And now, that's being put in jeopardy," she said. "I know who I'm next to, right now. And a week from now, I'm not going to know who I'm next to."
Meanwhile, many Jungle residents say they're happy right where they are. They have room to spread out. They form alliances, and watch over each other. There's crime and addiction, but few camps are completely free of such problems.
Jason, who didn't want to use his last name as he doesn't want his new employer to know he's homeless, stood outside his tent in the Jungle and pointed down the hill towards the Airport Way and Royal Brougham camp.
"You can see down there, the ambulance and the cops are down there every night, who wants to move into that, you know?" said Jason.