Autonomia and the Jungle: Moments in the Struggle Against Gentrification in the Pacific Northwest

Illustration by Tom Dougherty

June 7, 2016 –            Just last Friday, the third of June, the Seattle Public Library held a community listening event around Seattle Mayor Ed Murray’s plan to clear out the Interstate 5 homeless encampments known as the Jungle, home to about 300 people, because it is unauthorized (Beekman, June 6, 2016; DeMay, 2016). Murray declared an emergency because of homelessness last November (DeMay, 2016). This state of emergency justified his spending of $80,000 in public revenue on a private consultant on homelessness, Barbara Poppe, who recommended an end to even the authorized homeless encampments (Beekman, February 26, 2016). Murray and the city council passed a city ordinance last year that authorized three encampments of up to 100 people each that are currently in operation in Ballard, Interbay and in the Rainier Valley (Beekman, February 26, 2016). Murray has overseen the demolition of Nicklesville, and other “unauthorized” homeless encampments that began after the passage of the ordinance (DeMay, 2016).

Houselessness in the King County has increased by 19% since last year, a recent count of unsheltered homeless documented 4,505 people outside in King County and 2,942 in Seattle (King County Coalition on Homelessness, 2016). The number of people that slept under roadways such as The Jungle encampments comprise only 9% of the focus population in Seattle, the majority 31% sleep instead in their vehicles (ibid). At the event, one audience member who had once been a resident of The Jungle currently lived on his boat and faced regular intimidation and persecution by law enforcement agencies, this persistant harassment the audience member reported led to the loss of his job.

Homeless Seattle

Chart 1: Source “Summary of the 2016 Unsheltered Homeless Count in Selected Areas of King County” by the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness.

The panel at the event was comprised of four participants, Kevin Boggs and Brandie Osbourne who currently reside in the Jungle, Donald Morehead who lived in the Jungle a few years ago and Tim Harris, an advocate from Real Change. The event was moderated by Joshua McNichols. The panelists and an audience of over 400 people advocated leaving the Jungle open as an encampment so long as there was no low-income housing alternative in place by the city. Osbourne, who had also been removed from the Nicklesville encampment in September, argued that she and others were more than willing to move so long as the place they were moving to was their own low-income housing. She argued that shelters were not community oriented, they did not have anywhere they could store their belongings, and that the shelter policies of having to leave by 6 in the morning, seperating families, not allowing pets, and the prevalence of sexual abuse inside the shelters made being housed in places like the Union Gospel Mission unappealing as a resolution. Kevin Boggs argued that in The Jungle they at least had the freedom to feel secure, to make intentional community, to have families, to have pets, to decide when they were going to wake up, and to have a home to come back to. Donald Morehead was someone who had been able to gain access to low income housing and made sure to spell out the difference between what was labeled “affordable housing” and “low income housing” as many of the units described as affordable by housing merchants reflected the ongoing housing speculation in the city that was driven by gentrification that has caused rents to rise 11% this past May (Keeley, 2016). Members of the panel were sure to connect the statistic developed by the Committee to End Homelessness that for every $100 that the median rent rises, there is an increase in homelessness by 15% (Chen 2015).

The lesson that this community listening session narrated was one regarding the importance of autonomy as a contradiction for community trauma for people in the region that was caused by the structural violence affiliated with development. It was clear that these 300 people had a community, families and a home that was located in The Jungle and that Mayor Ed Murray had made it a personal vendetta to persecute this very small population that is a symptom of the larger housing crisis for Seattle in order to appear to corporate investors and city benefactors that he has the ability to control the streets (Beekman, June 6, 2016).

The late Tata Juan Chavez once said that “The projects of bad government are about turning everything into a commodity. They are projects of death. It goes against everything” (Madrigal 2015). He continued, “We must retake those projects for life, this is the work left to do… to defend and support these life affirming projects” (ibid). Chavez continued his synthesis of the matter of Autonomy by stating that, “When a community exercises its right to be stewards of its territory. Free will and self-determination; the road is the community in defense of itself, it does not depend on what some judicial rulings dictate” (ibid). Tata Juan Chavez was a Zapatista and he was one of the elders of the National Indigenous Congress (CNI) in Mexico, I last encountered him at the first forum in defense of water in November of 2010.

When talking about alternatives to capitalist development it is easy to focus one’s gaze on the negative, on the nightmare wreaked by gentrification upon the community. Autonomy, instead, focuses our gaze upon life, as Tata Juan Chavez points out. Life in the face of death, described most recently by Kevin Boggs as freedom, or by Brandie Osbourne as the security she felt from the community she helped form in The Jungle.

These alternative relations have existed in The Jungle for at least the last six years. And at least in that time period, they have been understood as projects of life, projects of autonomy. Community members have maintained ongoing relationships to many of the residents in The Jungle. In particular many of the Latino day laborers that have resided there because many of them are not afforded any of the government resources available to other people because of their citizenship status. These people, rather than giving up, have instead invested in terra-formation, carving pathways and platforms into the slopes of the geographically uninviting sheer cliffs of the Beacon Hill Greenbelt that borders the underside of the I-5. They have forged community in much the way that was described by the above panelists that discussed the meticulous work that they put in to keep their area of residence as sanitary as possible, including the raking of the dirt itself of debris and the deposit of the waste at a dumpster that is provided by a nearby recycling center.

How then, do we go about defending and nurturing life affirming projects like these in the face of government oppression? How do we continue to build community despite the clear trauma imposed by the capitalist development projects? Luckily, we are not alone in posing these questions. In San Francisco, residents of the Potrero Hill Terrace and Annex public housing also face similar daunting economic and social challenges as described by the residents of The Jungle. Like many of the houseless people in Seattle, “those living in urban poverty—often encounter multiple traumas over many years” and this includes the extreme violence, crime, and untreated poor mental health experienced in both places (Neufeld, 2016). The Jungle is not the source of the gun violence, arson, “rapes and other violent crime and the bike chop shops down there in The Jungle,” as Mayor Ed Murray contends, the Family-Informed Trauma Treatment Center has argued convincingly that the source of the problem is much deeper and requires a different approach than the authorization and eradication of encampments (Beekman, June 6, 2016; Neufeld 2016).

In San Francisco, BRIDGE Housing and San Francisco State University have advanced an approach they have labeled, “ ‘truama-informed community building’ (TICB) as a new model for strengthening high-poverty communities as part of housing transformation efforts” (Neufeld 2016). The model advances four principles that Mayor Murray and the Seattle City Council can learn from as we relocate the problem of urban poverty squarely as a public health, not a law enforcement matter. The four principles are Do No Harm, Acceptance, Community Empowerment, and a Reflective Process that examines change over multiple generations. There are no shortcuts to addressing urban poverty. Removing encampments and enclosing The Jungle is a shortcut, a quick fix that does not resolve the issue. A public health approach to urban poverty involves building community autonomy and supporting the resilience that already exists there as described by the proceedings of the panel.

The possibilities when we choose life are as wide as the horizon.


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