Newspaper article International New York Times

Violence Exposes Seattle's Underbelly ; Worsening Conditions at Homeless Camp Open a Window on Parallel City

Newspaper article International New York Times

Violence Exposes Seattle's Underbelly ; Worsening Conditions at Homeless Camp Open a Window on Parallel City

Article excerpt

The sprawling encampment under a highway, known as the Jungle, has become harder for Seattle residents to ignore as conditions deteriorate.

So dangerous is this city's biggest homeless camp, called the Jungle -- three ragged miles stitched along the underbelly of Interstate 5 -- that if a fire broke out there today, firefighters would not be allowed in without an armed police escort. State lawmakers are considering closing the camp by erecting a razor-wire fence around it, at a cost of $1 million.

This is Darrel Sutton's world. Mr. Sutton, 52, a slight, soft- spoken former roofing worker who has struggled for years with heroin addiction, said he had been attacked twice in his five years in the Jungle, once with a pipe, another time with a tent pole -- both times for no reason he ever figured out.

"You're always watching your back," Mr. Sutton said in an interview outside a methadone clinic on the camp's edge.

Seattle is booming with tech-driven economic growth, an envy of the nation in many regards. But a recent attack in the Jungle that left two people shot to death and three others wounded has thrown open a window onto a kind of parallel city hidden in the shadows under the highway, and sent a paroxysm of shock through people who had long looked the other way.

The police and Fire Department crews have responded to trouble in the camp more than 820 times in the last five years, including 70 violent incidents, 500 emergency medical calls and 250 fires. Last year was the worst for violence in a decade. The shootings in January led to the arrests of three teenage brothers, who are homeless themselves and now in jail.

"You step in there, and it's like you're not even in the United States anymore," said Harold Scoggins, the chief of the Seattle Fire Department, who went into the Jungle after the shootings with a group of public health and safety officials for two days of study.

Most big cities have a Jungle by some other name -- a stretch of woods by the railroad tracks, an industrial property gone to seed, a skid row. And in other big cities with major homeless populations, like Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York, the problem is also front and center on the streets. In San Francisco, for example, after warning the homeless in a particular encampment that they would have to leave by Friday for public health reasons, officials on Tuesday began clearing out the belongings of the few dozen people who had refused to go.

But Seattle, where Mayor Edward B. Murray declared a state of emergency over homelessness in November, is being looked to as a model by some other cities because of its strategy of setting aside areas for authorized tent camps that are overseen by social service agencies and governed by rules of conduct. Last Friday, for example, city councilors from Sacramento paid an official visit to Seattle's designated tent cities to weigh adopting the strategy back home.

The Jungle, however, is not an authorized camp, and the same week the California officials visited, the Washington Legislature began deliberating how to clear the camp and keep it cleared, with some lawmakers supporting construction of an 8,000-foot-long border fence.

In a report released last month about conditions in the Jungle, Chief Scoggins and his team said they had found blight, misery and filth beyond anything they had imagined. They described hearing tales from residents of heroin addiction and trafficking, depravity and sexual violence that never make it onto police blotters. …

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