Jim is homeless, jobless, and living under the freeway in a primitive Seattle homeless encampment called the Jungle. This morning, he's standing near a crime scene where two people were recently shot to death and three others wounded. A trio of teenage brothers, allegedly sent by their mother to collect a drug debt, have been charged with the killings.
"Could have been me killed," said Jim, who didn't want to give a last name. With a bedroll under his arm, the wiry, lightly bearded camper added that, all things considered, the double homicide might actually be a blessing. Seattle officials responded to the incident by flooding the Jungle with police and social workers, who are now offering health care and housing.
"There are cops and welfare types all over the place now," Jim said. "Maybe they'll find us a place to stay and shut this dump down."
His take makes it nearly unanimous: The mayor, police officials, politicians, and seemingly all of Seattle agrees that the Jungle should be cleared out.
The encampment, a series of secluded, earthen warrens, is roughly three blocks long and sits south of downtown under the I-5 freeway that cuts through the middle of the city. Wishful views of wealth — skyscrapers, stadiums, and private jets landing at nearby Boeing Field — are visible through a tangle of trees. With dirt floors, a concrete ceiling, and fire pits, the Jungle is an overnight stop for some and a home of sorts for those who can make do with salvaged furniture. Steps away is a drug-dealing niche called the Cave.
The transients' hideaway has been around since at least the 1980s, which is about when the calls for its closure began. But as a number of Seattle mayors have discovered, shutting down the Jungle and posting a few no trespassing signs does little good without a workable solution to homelessness.
Seattle's current first-term Mayor Ed Murray is finding that out the hard way. He has been fighting NIMBYs — locals who say "Not in my backyard" — and others resistant to his proposals, which include allowing tent camps and one-room cabin villages in residential neighborhoods. Some Seattleites have said they're were worried about crime and the effect on property values.
'Maybe they'll find us a place to stay and shut this dump down.'
In some neighborhoods, residents have also complained about strangers living in RVs, taking up parking spaces and dealing drugs. In one upscale enclave with expansive views of Puget Sound, uniformed security officers were hired to patrol the streets in blue and white Humvees, armed with cellphones to quickly report crimes and suspicious characters to the police. To placate residents, Murray ordered the RVs moved to two new sanctioned lots in isolated parts of the city.
The situation is bad enough that Murray and King County Executive Dow Constantine declared states of emergency last November, seeking federal aid for the homeless in much the way a community hit by a tornado or earthquake would seek help for its victims.
"We are involved in a homelessness crisis the like that we have not seen since the Great Depression," Murray said. "There is no simple answer."
Seattle isn't the only West Coast city facing a homeless crisis. On consecutive days last September, both Los Angeles and Portland declared states of emergency due to soaring homeless populations, calling for millions in short-term funding to provide services and shelter. There's no consensus on the cause of problem, but the likely factors include booming real-estate markets that have driven up the cost of housing, and a dramatic rise in the rate of opioid drug addiction.
Watch the VICE News documentary Hiding the Homeless:
A one-night count of homeless people in Seattle and King County last month found a record 4,505 men, women, and children without shelter, a 19 percent increase over the previous year. A total of 2,940 homeless were counted in Seattle alone. During the three-hour survey, volunteers discovered homeless people living on benches, in parking garages, cars, doorways, alleys, bushes, parks, at bus stops, and beneath roadways.
Another count tallied the dead over the course of a year. A volunteer group, Women In Black, reported that 66 homeless men and women died in Seattle last year. Most were natural deaths, but many were suicides and 11 were homicides. "This is the highest number of calendar-year deaths since we began our vigils 16 years ago," the group said in a Facebook post, "a heartbreaking new record!"
"Unsheltered homeless people are extremely vulnerable to violence and street predators," said activist Tim Harris. "And we're seeing more of that as the numbers of people on the street keep going up."
Harris, the founder of the weekly newspaper Real Change, which bills itself as the "voice of Seattle's poor and homeless," feels the city is making a sincere effort to combat homelessness. The city's LEAD program, a street-based harm reduction initiative for alcoholics and drug addicts, has been lauded as a national model. The program, which is limited in scope and still in the pilot phase, offers housing and a support network to addicts instead of locking them up.
"The strategy of harm reduction, with relatively inexpensive sanctioned encampments and RV lots that give people safer places to be, is a big step forward," he said. While the mayor's state of emergency declaration is "not enough on its own," Harris said, "it's probably the most impressive local response anywhere."
Murray was seeking more community support on the night of January 26, preparing to give a televised speech on the homeless issue, when the latest bad news arrived: Five people were shot in the Jungle, two fatally.
Talking to the press in the rain, Murray looked stunned. "I can't help but wonder," he said, "did I act too late? It's on me in the end." In his speech, the mayor proposed doubling the city's current housing levy, raising $290 million over seven years. It would fund affordable apartments, rental support for families at risk, and help low-income homeowners remain in their homes.
'The conditions there would be appalling to most of us.'
More housing, he also hoped, would help cut down on the violence among the homeless, including a string of murders in the city and county last year. The killings included a homeless man gunned down by one of 10 shots fired by a masked shooter as the victim huddled with his wife and son in a vacant suburban apartment to escape the rain.
A homeless woman was also beaten to death while camping out in an industrial area; a suspect who was later shot in the leg by police and arrested. Another homeless couple was murdered in a suburban park, and a suspect was also arrested in that case.
The annual body count began anew in January with the Jungle shootings. King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg laid out the bloody details last week at a news conference, announcing that two of the three suspects, all juveniles, would be tried as adults.
Satterberg said James Taafulisia, 17, and Jerome Taafulisia, 16, face two counts of first-degree murder. Their 13-year-old brother is also charged with first-degree murder but will be tried in juvenile court. There is no indication he did any shooting.
The older brothers, armed with a .45 caliber handgun and a .22 caliber pistol, lived with the 13-year-old in a tent pitched at another impromptu homeless encampment a few blocks away from the Jungle. The sons were all wards of the state who had run from their foster homes to live with their mom, Satterberg said. The mother stays in a motel.
She dispatched them to collect a drug debt at the Jungle at around 7pm, Satterberg alleged. When they arrived, the teens donned masks and targeted a group sitting around a fire. They almost immediately began shooting, fatally wounding James Q. Tran, 33, and Jeannine L. Zapata, known also as Jeannine Brooks, 45. She was hit by .45 caliber hollow point slugs and a .22 slug, the prosecutor said.
Three others were shot and badly wounded, although all survived. One of the three, a woman who screamed and begged not to be shot, was shot anyway. The trio of assailants made off with about $300 in cash and $100 worth of black tar heroin, investigators determined.
The next day, informants told police that the brothers were bragging about the shooting. Police worked with their sources to set up a meeting that was recorded on both audio and video. The brothers allegedly detailed the shooting and laughed about the victims.
One also offered to sell the .45 that was allegedly used in the shooting. Police provided money and one of the informants returned and bought the weapon. Police said the gun, which had been stolen in a Seattle burglary 40 years ago, was a ballistics match with the bullets from the crime scene.
The mother, who is under investigation, denied playing a role in the killings. Police said the brothers were known to them as suspects in earlier robberies, and had lived with the mother at the Jungle last year.
If the two older brothers are convicted, they face up to 113 years in prison, said prosecutor Satterberg, although, by law, they'll be eligible for sentence reviews and parole by 2036, since both were juveniles at the time of the crime.
Satterberg also joined the chorus calling for an end to the Jungle.
"The conditions there would be appalling to most of us," he said, describing a site littered with trash, old propane tanks, debris, and open pits of human waste. He called it a public health danger as well as a crime magnet.
"It's not a solution to homelessness… in fact it's the worst possible place for [the] homeless to be," the prosecutor said. "I agree, it's time to envision a Seattle without the Jungle."
Follow Rick Anderson on Twitter: @Rosebd