Why so many prefer the Jungle to homeless shelters | KUOW News and Information

Why so many prefer the Jungle to homeless shelters

May 31, 2016

The woman was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

She had returned to the Jungle to pick up her suitcase.

Then the shooters arrived. She and two others survived, but two people were killed.

After the fatal shooting in the jungle last January, a city of Seattle staffer sat down with the woman’s mother.

The mother said her daughter had been homeless a long time and that she had been unable to get into shelters or housing for some reason or another. This dilemma is partly why the Jungle – a three-mile defacto homeless encampment under I-5 – exists.

The suitcase, too, speaks to the Jungle’s appeal. When you live in shelters, where do you stow a suitcase? It’s easier to keep your stuff in the Jungle than it is at a shelter.

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At the Downtown Emergency Services Center (which most call the DESC), Liz Werley-Prieto took me through the day room.

People sat on chairs, their personal belongings gathered around their feet.

“Where do people put their stuff?” I asked.

“We ask that all people keep their belongings with them at all time,” Werley-Prieto said. “That’s really challenging for folks. Because a lot of people may have all their belongings with them in a trash bag.”

Homeless advocate Rick Reynolds says we shouldn't be too hard on shelters.
Credit KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols

The shelter doesn’t have enough storage space for all that stuff. It’s the same story at other shelters.

That’s one of the reasons Cassidy Sweezey lives in the Jungle. Sweezey has a tidy encampment behind a section of chain-link fence under the freeway. It’s a sort of home, where she can cook and relax in privacy. She goes to the methadone clinic nearby.

“To stay in a shelter you have to carry all your belongings and leave at a certain time and come back to wait in line to get in at another certain time,” she said. “There’s nowhere to cook, and I’ve got a boyfriend, I’ve got two dogs, which also doesn’t fly.”

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The cooking, the boyfriend, the dogs – those make her tough life better.

“I kind of gave up on the system a little while ago, because you jump through all these hoops, and they ask so much of you,” Sweezey said. “For me to move to a shelter and go that route would degrade my way of living right now. It would be like taking a step back.”

Rick Reynolds, a homeless advocate with Operation Nightwatch, gets it.

He said when you go into shelter, you give up a lot, including personal freedoms.

“I mean, a shelter’s gonna regiment you,” Reynolds said. “Human beings defy regimentation. Any parent of a teenager will understand this.”

Outside the DESC, Teddy Morada Jr. was selling single cigarettes. He pointed to the shelter.

“That place there is the most ridiculous, outlandish place I’ve ever been to,” he said.

Morada got kicked out after his mental health issues flared up and resulted in a knife fight. He also uses crack.

It shows what a complicated population shelters work with and the other kind of baggage shelter clients sometimes carry with them.

So do shelters even work?

For many people, yes, said Sola Plumacher of Seattle’s Human Services Department. She’s in charge of contracts with shelters and believes Seattle needs more of them.

But at the same time, she recognizes that shelters address a symptom rather than the root of the problem.

“It has definitely become very clear that that is not the kind of system that is having the greatest impact,” Plumacher said.

A 2015 internal report criticized how the city spends its money fighting homelessness.

It said we spend 70 percent on shelters and temporary housing and only 30 percent on cheaper strategies that work better. Like rental assistance or permanent housing with counseling.

In the Jungle, Cassidy Sweezey can make herself a burger. She said that she won't take the offer of moving out of the Jungle into the shelter – she'll just move her tent.
Credit Courtesy of Cassidy Sweezey

Data obtained by KUOW suggests that things haven’t changed much since the report.

City staffer Josh Hall authored the report; he compared the shelter system to a glass held under a water tap.

You can make the glass taller, so that the water doesn’t overflow.

“Or, you can turn off the tap – slow the tap – and then you don’t need to keep building up that glass to hold and contain the water,” Hall said.

So why hasn’t Seattle moved money to cheaper, smarter strategies?

The report blames lack of political will and the influence of advocates who depend on funding to stay in business.

The city wants to change that. Plumacher said that at some point, shelters in Seattle may compete against each other for contracts. They may be judged based on how well they succeed in getting people into more stable situations.

The city has hired a consultant to help them with those kinds of decisions.

Homeless advocate Rick Reynolds argued we shouldn’t judge shelters too harshly for the things they can’t do.

“Shelter itself has value,” Reynolds said. “You’re reducing human suffering. Right? You’re keeping people engaged with other human beings in a semi-responsible way. They’re able to get along with others and they can function in the shelter system and that’s a good thing.”

Meanwhile, the city is moving on its plan to close down the Jungle. Outreach workers are trying to persuade people to accept shelter.

Cassidy Sweezey said she won’t take that offer. She plans to camp somewhere else, probably in a place that’s more visible than the Jungle.

“We would just be in your face more,” she said. “We’re not going to go anywhere. We’re not going to disappear just because you take the place where we sleep at night away.”

Join a community conversation about the Jungle at Seattle Public Library on Friday, June 3, 2016.

An earlier version of this story cited an internal city report published in 2012. The correct year of publication was 2015.