Most people think of the Jungle as a scary homeless camp, a no man’s land under the freeway near downtown Seattle.
But it’s more of a collection of neighborhoods.
There are the caves in the north part, where fatal shootings in January put the Jungle on the map.
In the central area are former African child soldiers who spend their days lounging on couches, zonked out on heroin.
The south part of the Jungle is where Robert and Carmen Patterson live with Mamakitty, their orange tabby cat. They first moved to the Jungle in 2011 and stayed there for four years straight.
The Pattersons have kept an audio diary for us. On a recent Saturday, returning from their daughter’s apartment in Lake Forest Park, they recorded themselves getting off the bus at 10:35 p.m.
“We usually come prepared,” Robert Patterson said into the mic. “I’ve got what you call a mini machete. Carmen’s got some items. Just as long as we have our lights. And we know most of the people around here. So it’s not too big of a problem. Except for the crazies.”
In 2012, a man tried to kill them both as they slept. That man is in jail now.
Most of the people living in the Jungle don’t have spotless criminal records. Many are addicted to heroin.
Near the Patterson’s tent, people live in piles of garbage and used syringes. But the Patterson’s campsite is relatively clean. They’re on the methadone program at a clinic nearby. Many people who live in the Jungle emerge for methadone treatment and then return to their sites.
It takes about 45 minutes to walk from where the Pattersons live in the south Jungle to the north Jungle.
On a recent walk north, we saw new arrivals sleeping in blankets on the ground. Some people who have lived here for a while build plywood walls around their tents.
We stopped in the central area of the Jungle, a darker part of the homeless encampment, where Interstate 5 is just 10 feet overhead.
Here we meet Majok Lewis, whose parents sent him to the U.S. from South Sudan when he was 13. He hasn’t seen his parents since.
“I didn’t have nobody to help me,” Lewis said. “I was just walking on the street downtown, and I find one South Sudanese guy. And he just told me, ‘You can come and live with me in the Jungle, since you have nowhere to go.'”
Lewis said he lost his identification, which means he can’t drive, he can’t get a job or a place to live.
“I am stuck down here,” he said.
Lewis has watched his friends in the Jungle turn bitter. They include former child soldiers from South Sudan and other immigrants.
“I can tell you one thing – they just hate the whole Seattle,” he said. “They hate all Seattle. Because the situation that they are in it – that nobody’s helping them – even though you talk, you won’t help that much.”
Lewis has big dreams for the future.
“I want to be able to support myself,” he said. “I love my mom so much. And I love my family so much. And I want them to see me again.”
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Lewis wants to get educated and return to the Jungle to help his friends, one at a time. He wants to help them find jobs and places to live.
"They have a voice, but they cannot speak it," he said. But without help, he said all he can do is wait and see what happens.
A muddy trail under the freeway carried us to the north Jungle. Rain formed little rivers, forcing us to jump across.
We stopped at a spot called “the caves.” Here the freeway is so close you can hear cars bang against the expansion joints overhead.
Five people were shot here earlier this year; two died. It happened just feet from Danny’s tent.
Danny doesn’t give his last name, because his family doesn’t know he’s homeless.
“We have to be very careful about who we see coming up that trail,” he said. “Because sometimes it’s not good news. Sometimes, it’s the police. Sometimes it’s somebody coming up to do something bad.”
Those living in the north Jungle have a system of lookouts at night.
“They call – one from the bottom, one from the west,” Danny explained. “Unfortunately, that didn’t work for us that night, because the people came up looking like ordinary citizens. And then they just pulled out a gun and started shooting. There was nothing we could do.”
Kara Bernstine lives in the tent next to Danny. She knows there’s danger here in the Jungle. And yet, she said she feels safe. This is the paradox of the jungle.
“I think for most of us, by the time we’ve gotten here to the point where we’re living under a bridge in tents, we feel very much alone,” Bernstine said. “When you’re out on the streets, there’s absolutely no normalcy at all, there’s no routine. And so, when I found this place, it had felt so long since I’ve felt safe and welcomed.”
Bernstine and Danny said the danger comes from outsiders. There’s some evidence to support that.
Craig Thompson lives in a house on Beacon Hill, about a block from the Jungle.
Thompson said he’s seen dealers drive up to the edge of the jungle to sell drugs.
Thompson and a team of volunteers have spent hours driving them out – by gardening. The drug dealers don’t like it when people are around.
“You can only be so tough when there are 30 young people who are eager to pull weeds all around you,” Thompson said.
Thompson and his neighbors have found weapons here, in the forest next to I-5. Guns and knives, homemade spears and crossbows.
The weapons and the people Thompson has met reveal an independent streak that runs through the Jungle.
Thompson tells the story of a man who set out a hammock here, and then claimed to own this piece of the jungle under the Homestead Act. That’s the law that once allowed pioneers to claim land here.
“And then, he opens up his backpack and pulls out what must have been a ream of legal papers,” Thompson said. “He starts flipping through them and he says, ‘You know what bothers me? I filed these papers and the judges won’t even let me set foot in court anymore.’”
Just like back in pioneer days, the man’s claim is rooted in the false sense that this land is abandoned. But the land here, although it runs through the City of Seattle, is owned by the state. And soon the state will decide what to do with this unruly place at least 400 people call home – they may sweep it out or build a road under the freeway.