Every day, social workers reach out to homeless people on the streets of Seattle. But there’s one place social workers seldom go: the Jungle.
That’s the notorious homeless encampment under Interstate 5 where there have been assaults, rapes and stabbings. Many outreach workers consider it too dangerous. But a few do enter the Jungle.
“The only person that’s come to us to talk about any kind of outreach is Liz and them. Nobody else has come to talk to us about it,” said Cheryl Oliver, who lives in the Jungle.
By “Liz and them,” Oliver meant Liz Curtis and a nonprofit group called Heroes for the Homeless. They bring food and supplies to Jungle residents once or twice a month.
On a recent Saturday morning around 7:00, Oliver watched Curtis unload syringes, clothes and double-A batteries from the back of her car into backpacks carried by other volunteers.
“Liz, I was noticing that big can of chicken breast,” said Oliver, “is that for anybody?”
“That is for you!” said Curtis. She knows Oliver’s love of cooking. Oliver has a reputation of cooking large meals for her family and friends in a Dutch oven pot on a single propane burner.
“That will save me from going to the food bank today,” said Oliver.
The volunteers hike from campsite to campsite, calling out as they pass tents: “Good morning, Heroes for the Homeless, anybody home? We have food and supplies.”
Some tents remained silent in response. But in one, we heard a rustling sound, then an unzipping door. A sleepy head popped out and a pair of hands accepted a cup of really strong hot chocolate.
These early hours are a good time to catch people before they have left the Jungle to find food or water, or to catch a bus to the methadone clinic.
There are other organizations that do what Curtis and her group do. Some of them get money from the city. But those groups rarely come here.
Curtis does this once or twice a month because she can’t forget the people she’s met here. “Coming down here and having face-to-face contact, and saying, ‘How are you?’ I think a lot of that has made it so that I stop seeing homelessness as a blight on society. It’s more – you know, these are real people.
“And how close are you to homelessness, you know?” she said.
Hours later, Curtis and her team finally finished handing out all their stuff.
Curtis gave her whole morning to this work. It’s not like she has a lot of extra time. She’s a legal assistant who attends community college at night. “So I’ll leave here and go home and write a final paper,” she said, “even though I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning.”
It takes that kind of person to volunteer their time here, in the Jungle.
Sola Plumacher works for Seattle’s Human Services Department. Part of her job includes managing the city’s contracts with outreach workers.
I asked her if the outreach workers paid by the city should be required to go into the Jungle. “Well, I think the response in the Jungle is challenging because it is a very isolated area,” Plumacher said.
There are lots of places to hide, and there’s been a history of violence there. Even fire fighters only go in with a police escort.
But the danger doesn’t stand in the way of John Meer. He shows up in the Jungle every weekend. He runs a pancake breakfast, “a meal with a message,” he called it, as part of a ministry called Light Under The Bridge.
I followed him on a recent Sunday. He met with his crew of volunteers at a nearby Tully’s Coffee. Wearing a bright yellow “Trust Jesus” T-shirt, he anointed their foreheads with oil, then prepared them for what they might encounter.
“The Bible says that we come against the strong man,” he said, “and if there’s more of us getting against that strong man, we’re going to boot him out.”
Meer doesn’t bring his crew of volunteers as far into the Jungle as Liz Curtis does. He has a lot of equipment to carry; big, heavy speakers, for example.
Meer leaned into the microphone after setting-up in the Jungle and kicked off the breakfast: “We’re going to have eggs!”
“Eggs,” the crowd echoed. They have clearly done this before.
“We’re going to have toast!” he shouted.
“Toast!” said the crowd.
“We’re going to have the Holy Ghost!”
“Hallelujah!” he said, and breakfast was served.
Just as Heroes for the Homeless did, Meer saw the absence of services here. He wanted to do something about it. “I want my life to count,” he told me.
Meer is a man on a mission. He’s been down and out. He told me: once, he was drunk and dangerous. “Thirteen years ago, I tried to kill somebody, Joshua. And I don’t do that anymore,” he said.
Now, he’s more likely to wash somebody’s feet. He has literally done that in the Jungle. “And you should have seen this guy,” he said. “He was like, ‘Wow. Wow.’”
But Meer doesn’t let people push him around, either. One time, a man came by and threw a basketball at the breakfast table.
“And the coffee runs into the brand new Bibles that we got,” Meer said. “And the next thing – I probably shouldn’t tell you this - I grabbed this guy’s arm and twisted his arm and started dragging him down the road. ‘How dare you come in here, in the name of Jesus, we’re here for love, and blah blah blah!’ And here I’m acting like this and he’s going, ‘Ah, ah, ahh!’”
Meer admitted he’s frustrated by Jungle residents who “dine and dash,” leaving after breakfast without sticking around for the Bible reading. But he’s trying to grow more tolerant. The women in his group urge him not to chase after people like that.
We all have things we’re working on, he said. He’s working on his temper.
Whatever his temperament, in this place, he’s the outsider who visits most frequently. Because, again, city-funded outreach workers almost never came in here.
“That’s the kind of situation that we really want to change here,” said Scott Lindsay. He works in the mayor’s office. Helping coordinate a productive response to homelessness and the Jungle is part of his job.
In an interview in mid-April, Lindsay admitted there’s an absence of outreach services in the Jungle. “We’re trying to turn that around and really flood this area with law enforcement and outreach workers.”
Here’s the difference between paid outreach workers and volunteers: Volunteers show up when they can fit it into their busy schedules. That usually means Saturday mornings. And volunteers bring their own personal reasons for doing what they do.
Paid outreach workers could show up more often; maybe even every day, like they do in parts of downtown and Capitol Hill. And they’d be more likely to have professional training.
The mayor’s plan for the Jungle is still in development. His office is considering installing gates at 10 major intersections where homeless people and outreach workers enter the Jungle.
People will still live there. But access to, and escape from , this partially blocked-off Jungle could become more difficult. There's no word yet on which outreach workers will get a key to those gates.
All this month, we’re taking a deep look at the Jungle. What it is, and the reasons it’s there.
We want to hear from you. What’s the city’s responsibility to the people in the jungle? You can call our listener feedback line and leave your response. It’s 206.221.3663.