Report: 'Jungle' homeless camp under I-5, home to 400, 'uninhabitable'
Updated 6:07 pm, Wednesday, February 17, 2016
The area under and around Interstate 5 south of downtown, known as the "Jungle," is estimated to be home to more than 400 homeless people and presents serious risks to human and environmental health, according to an assessment released Wednesday.
Officials with the Seattle Fire and Police Departments, public health agencies, the state Department of Transportation and others conducted an one-the-ground assessment of the area over two days following the Jan. 26 shooting in the area that left two dead and three wounded.
Not only did officials find open sewers, human waste, hazardous materials and evidence of significant criminal activity, but also an unauthorized population that, for one reason or another, has nowhere else to go, with some living in the area for more than two years.
"We saw a lot of things...that would make you think you left the U.S.," said Seattle Fire Department Chief Harold Scoggins during a briefing on the assessment Wednesday morning. "It was mind-blowing to see it on such a large magnitude."
Though officials have yet to make a plan to clean up the area and help the people there get services, the long-term encampment also poses a problem for maintenance of I-5 and waste from the area is likely finding its way into the Duwamish River, officials said.
Overall, the area encompasses more than 160 acres; south from South Dearborn Street to Lucille Street and west from 12th Avenue South to Airport Way South.
The assessment group counted 201 tents during the walk through, and figures each tent is home to two people. But Scoggins and others noted that return trips at night revealed many more tents than were seen during the day, so it's likely that the number of people living in the area is much higher than counted.
"All were living in conditions that were uninhabitable," said Jason Johnson, deputy director, Seattle Human Services Department.
Many of the people living there described "service gaps" that made it hard for them to use existing services to get out of homelessness, Johnson said.
Beyond that, many people there suffer from mental illness, drug or alcohol addiction, and some lack documents needed to apply for services, the assessment found.
Environmentally, the area is a risk to those living there and beyond. Literal piles of human waste, garbage, rotting food, and pools of contaminated water could become pollution in the Duwamish River, as storm drains from I-5 eventually empty into the river, said Darrell Rogers with Seattle Public Health.
Seattle Police Assistant Chief Steve Wilske found no shortage of items that were likely stolen, and other evidence of criminal activity and drug use, but he was struck most by the living conditions, he said.
What's more, the area is a frequent locale for violent crime, often perpetrated against the homeless residents, Wilske said.
Scoggins also pointed out that fires, whether intentional or not, could easily get out of control in nearby brush and quickly spread uphill to Beacon Hill homes.
Seattle Fire has responded to the area more than 750 times in the last five years; 250 times for fires and 500 times for emergency medical response, according to the assessment.
"The fire concerns were just absolutely overwhelming," Scoggins said.
He said officials from the assessment group will continue to meet in coming weeks to come up with ways to deal with the area, including how to provide services to the homeless residents.