Jungle residents Brandie Osborne and Kevin Boggs discuss daily life in the homeless camp. Photo by Daniel Nash
Jungle residents Brandie Osborne and Kevin Boggs discuss daily life in the homeless camp. Photo by Daniel Nash
 

One by one they answered the questions. In the wake of the city of Seattle’s efforts to clear out “the Jungle,” the large homeless camp in the East Duwamish Greenbelt under and around Interstate 5 south of Downtown, current residents Brandie Osborne and Kevin Boggs were filling curious residents in on daily life in their community.

How big is it? Big, Osborne said. Much bigger than people might realize, if they walked beyond the shelter of I-5 into the forests.

Are there children living in the camp? They’re a rarity in the extreme, Boggs said. The teenagers who hang around are usually outsiders looking to score drugs.

That being said, the residents involved with drugs tend to keep it to themselves, said Boggs, a former opioid addict who is now sober.

Despite the highly publicized shooting in January that left two residents dead, Boggs said the Jungle is largely safe. Safe enough that he was able to spend a stretch of time in jail and return to his tent to find it untouched.

And the community’s safe enough for residents like Osborne to find it preferable to an overnight shelter, where she said conditions were often unsanitary and there were too many restrictions, such as the splitting up of couples or mandatory 6 a.m. expulsions.

Former Jungle resident Donald Morehead, who is now housed, framed wariness of shelters as a matter of freedom.

“You in your own house,” he said of living in the Jungle. “You don’t have to get up at 5:30 in the morning. Who’s up at 5:30 in the morning? The birds aren’t up at 5:30 in the morning. … People feel comfortable living the way they want to live.”

On Friday, June 3, KUOW, Real Change and the Seattle Public Library hosted a community discussion about the Jungle at the Microsoft Auditorium in the library’s Central branch.

The discussion was organized in the wake of a flurry of activity from city officials to clear out the Jungle after January’s shooting. On May 17, Mayor Ed Murray announced that the city, working in conjunction with the Washington State Department of Transportation, would move forward on a $1 million cleanup of the Jungle, with Union Gospel Mission contracted to provide outreach in a two-week run up to eviction.

That two-week timeline didn’t pan out -- Murray later told KIRO 7 it was “something the social services agency suggested” -- and on May 31 the Seattle City Council unanimously passed a resolution restricting the city’s authority to evict residents without documentation that it had offered alternative shelter and services to everyone. That documentation would need to be reviewed by councilmembers before Jungle residents could be given three days notice to vacate.

The resolution drew critics, such as SHARE,  the Seattle Housing and Resource Effort.

“This … just puts off sweeps until attention is elsewhere,” read a statement from SHARE, which a representative handed out as a flier outside the June 3 community discussion. “Next steps will be more individualistic outreach from the homeless profiteers of the Union Gospel Mission. The media will be misled by atypical stories of a handful of people getting fresh shiny apartments. … And it is a good start -- if the goal is to blame homeless people for homelessness and instead imply that all we have to do is be nice and give ‘them’ another chance.”

Discussion moderator Joshua McNichols, a KUOW journalist who has written extensively about the Jungle, said it was easy for outsiders to lose a sense of the residents’ humanity. Even the camp’s name implied the people living in it were animals, he said.

The panelists batted around other name possibilities, such as the official moniker East Duwamish Greenbelt (panned), the “Jungle Community” (also panned) and “Inescapable Death Place” (to scare off outsiders, according to Boggs).

“I think it’s always going to be ‘the Jungle,’” Osborne said.

Osborne moved to the Jungle after she was evicted with other residents from the former Nickelsville encampment on Dearborn Street in March.

Though worried at first, she said she was readily welcomed and has never felt unsafe.

That was typical for women but less so for men, who could be seen as threats, Boggs said.

While the panelists made it clear residents of the Jungle were human beings with jobs, families and responsibilities, sometimes they found animal terms useful.

Boggs said unknown men in the Jungle were frequently “challenged” and watched closely to ensure the safety of residents.

Likewise, Morehead described the necessity of living in “packs” of three to five people to protect themselves and their property. Unlike Boggs, Morehead once came home to his tent to discover a slew of tools and equipment he had purchased for a construction job had been stolen.

Morehead described other practical problems of the Jungle as well. Personal cleanliness was an issue. Hot weather would cover him in dust. Then the rainy season would cake the dust to his skin and clothes, he said.

In that sense, he was relieved to find low-income housing.

“People need [housing] to do the things they want to do in ‘real life,’ so to speak,” he said.

Even so, he said he preferred the Jungle to overnight shelters as an interim step. Osborne agreed.

“I feel like most people describe their experience in shelters as a lonely one,” she said.

Tim Harris of Real Change argued this was a major advantage of the Jungle: the ability to maintain a stable social community.

“It fulfills a need that shelter does not,” Harris said.

The countdown to an unknown eviction date continues. Boggs and Osborne said people from Union Gospel Mission had been by, but that their outreach was mostly unhelpful -- such as fliers for services that many homeless people are already aware of. They alleged some Jungle residents were being given more attention than others.

Both agreed they could see the city and WSDOT’s $1 million better spent. Osborne said she would like portable toilets and locked Dumpsters to keep passersby from opening trash bags. Boggs agreed with an audience suggestion that WSDOT pay Jungle residents to clean debris from the area.

But both agreed the best case scenario, in their mind, would be a return to some version of the status quo.

“My hope is that on the sixth of June or after, I’ll continue to be left alone, sleeping in my tent,” Osborne said.