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A candid account of the Seattle homeless crisis

Trash piles up under I-5 in the Jungle homeless encampment. (AP)

Seattle’s homeless crisis has been mounting for years, if not decades, but a shooting in the infamous Jungle homeless encampment this year put the issue at the forefront of discussion. At the center is the Union Gospel Mission.

The Mission has served and communicated with the Seattle homeless population for decades. Mission President Jeff Lilley answered the city’s request for insight and took officials with the mayor’s office and city council members on a tour of Seattle’s homeless sites. Lilley was asked what he would do about the homeless crisis in Seattle.

“We laid out a strategy that was both the carrot and stick concept – to say you can’t just let them decide where they are going to live, you have to dictate it,” Lilley said. “But just simply moving them isn’t going to solve it either. You actually have to provide solutions and help for them to get into housing, into recovery, give them options. At the same time, you are giving them options, you got to give them a hard line that says ‘You can’t stay here.’”

Shooting during final Jungle sweep

City officials did just that, according to Lilley. They asked the Mission to step up and help out with Seattle individuals. Their efforts were focused on the Jungle. But before any progress could be made, politics intervened. Instead of a quick, target program, the city spent months walking a line between action and the threat of being sued.

“That was in May when we started to do work on the Jungle,” he said. “It went all summer long with politics back and forth.”

“The initial plan was to do it quickly, but politics jumped in the way,” Lilley said. “It was going to be a two-week outreach plan … but the ACLU and some of the other homeless rights activists jumped in and said, ‘Nope, we aren’t going to allow you. We will sue if you do this.’ And that’s when they started working on the legislation that’s known as the sweep legislation we’re talking about now.”

These revelations became public in the Rise Seattle Podcast, which sat down with Lilley to talk about the Seattle homeless crisis. It’s a frank account of what has happened in Seattle over the past year, behind the scenes.

Seattle homeless, the ACLU and the Union Gospel Mission

Lilley may not see eye-to-eye with the ACLU, but he understands the perspective. He can agree to a point, but he notes that they are missing out on some key understandings of how homelessness works, and what is happening on the streets of Seattle.

The sweep legislation is a good example of that lack of understanding, Lilley said. A council bill crafted by the ACLU has been accepted by the council and is under consideration. It would essentially allow people to camp on public land. The city could only move encampments if they first offer adequate housing as an alternative. Then it must post notice of the removal, and the campers will have 30 days to move.

“The city does not have that housing now, which means you cannot post, you cannot sweep,” Lilley told Rise Seattle.

“The difference is when we are talking about a place like the Jungle with lawlessness and crime — a place the city can’t get to, the police can’t get to and the fire department won’t go in without the police,” he said. “They would set somebody’s tent on fire that they were mad at, and you have a bonfire underneath I-5 … and the fire department can’t even get there.”

Then there’s the issue of people going to the bathroom under I-5. Or the many rapes, human trafficking, assaults and other horrors that outreach teams commonly encounter in the Jungle.

“To stop and say, ‘We are going to leave somebody there,’ that’s where we differ (from the ACLU),” Lilley told Rise Seattle. “We look at it and say that we don’t have housing now, but let’s move to an encampment where we can offer services.”

Many people have moved out of the Jungle and are now staying at an encampment at Royal Brougham Way and Airport Way. Unlike the Jungle, there are bathrooms and showers among the 60-70 tents.

Other issues are more easily addressed, as well. While emergency services hesitated to go into the Jungle — they have already saved lives at the new encampment. Two people received medical attention after overdosing. There was also a shooting and a stabbing — police responded within minutes, according to Lilley.

Listen to Lilley’s full interview on the Rise Seattle podcast.

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