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Rantz: ACLU is having an ideological reaction to news from the ‘Jungle’

The American Civil Liberties Union is closely watching the work being done to clear out Seattle’s illegal homeless encampment known as the “Jungle.” (AP)
LISTEN: ACLU threatens lawsuit over Seattle's handling of the Jungle

The American Civil Liberties Union is closely watching the work being done to clear out Seattle’s illegal homeless encampment known as the “Jungle.”

“We are preparing litigation … but our preference is to resolve this through negotiations and policy changes,” said Jennifer Shaw, deputy director of the ALCU of Washington.

Related: Gospel Mission president sets the record straight on the “Jungle”

“Our goal isn’t to bring a lawsuit …,” Shaw told KIRO Radio’s Jason Rantz. “Our goal is to get a resolution that puts some clear structure around when areas might be cleaned out and when people may be moved out. Those structures are not in place yet.”

The Jungle is a greenbelt along I-5 between Seattle’s SoDo district and Beacon Hill. Hundreds of homeless individuals have set up camp there. The area has become known for unsanitary conditions, drug use, crime, and violence.

Shaw said that she has met with city council members to work out an approach that removes the two-week deadline that was announced last week. She said that the outreach teams have been making progress.

“If that progress continues to move forward … then there wouldn’t be a need to sue,” Shaw said.

Rantz argues that, while he understands the organization doesn’t agree with the city’s plan for the area, the ACLU is having an ideological reaction instead of a legal reaction to what is happening in the Jungle.

“I disagree with that,” Shaw said. “If [the city’s current activity] was working, and in two weeks everybody in the greenbelt said, ‘Fine, thank you, I’m happy to take what you are offering me,’ and they cleared it out, and there were no people living there, we would have no problem,” Shaw said.

“They haven’t given enough time for the solutions they’ve come up with so far to take,” she said. “The mayor coming out with a statement that it’s all going to be cleared out in two weeks was unreasonable and unrealistic.”

Shaw points to another jungle, in San Jose, where a similar situation arose. The city took 18 months to move through the area and close it down, moving people out with outreach. Then they went in with bulldozers to clear it out.

“That’s not what has been discussed in Seattle,” Shaw said. “I’m not saying it’s going to be easy, but it takes time.”

One thing that both Rantz and Shaw can agree on is that housing is the key solution to the homeless problem. Seattle needs to find adequate housing for those experiencing homelessness, then address the issues that cause homelessness.

Trespassing

The threat of a lawsuit was only one point that Rantz wanted to take on with the ACLU representative. He also caught on to the organization’s stance on trespassing. Rantz asked Shaw what the overall problem is with removing people who are trespassing.

“Well, it’s public property,” Shaw answered. “So the question is: If it’s open to the public, is that trespassing? And that can get into a legal debate.”

“I think it’s public property,” she said. “How that public property is used is the issue — that’s in question.”

But the purpose of that public property is not to house people, Rantz argued. After all, living in The Jungle means living among pests, human waste, trash, drug use, crime, and other hazards.

“The mayor has already said that we have a crisis of homelessness in this city and we do,” Shaw responded. “That’s a fact. That crisis is that people don’t have places to live so people have, almost by necessity, found spots. For the most part, they’re out of the way and they’re in places that aren’t harming other people — and they’re on public property.”

“The question is not so much the definition of trespass, it’s whether or not the city has the legal authority to move people of areas when there’s nowhere else to go,” she said.

But is that true, Rantz asks. Just one night before on his show, Rantz interviewed Jeff Lilley, president of the Union Gospel Mission which is going through The Jungle with city officials. According to Lilley, there are 415 beds available for approximately 300 people living in The Jungle. So far, four Jungle residents have taken that option. And that is entirely within the Union Gospel Mission’s shelters.

But that’s the key word for Shaw — “shelter.” She points out that those options only offer a bed to sleep in over night. In the morning, a person has to pack up all their belongings and head back out on to the street. It’s quite difficult to improve your situation under those circumstances, she argues.

“What we’ve been asking the city to do — and it’s not an easy fix — there needs to be an effort to look for places for people to be on a 24 hour basis where they can leave their things safely and they can come back the next day,” Shaw said.

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