On Wednesday, February 3, two suspects shot and seriously wounded a 22-year-old man on a bus in SoDo. While police emphasized that it was a targeted shooting, and SPD’s Gang Unit is reportedly involved in the investigation, it was still a front page, “I could’ve been on that bus!” kind of story.
The Metro shooting came only two days after horrifying details emerged in police documents concerning the previous week’s killing of two people and wounding of three others at The Jungle, a longstanding, notoriously rough homeless enclave on the west flank of Beacon Hill. Prosecutors charge that three teenage brothers, ages 17. 16. and 13, went to the encampment to collect a $500 drug debt owed to their mother. Neither mom nor the boys were homeless or lived in The Jungle themselves.
In both cases, the crimes were big stories involving shootings in distinctive locations. But after the Metro shooting, nobody demanded that the police seize all possessions being carried by the passengers on the bus. The Seattle Times didn’t run three straight days of front page, above-the-fold stories calling buses dens of drugs, guns, and deaths. (Though you can be sure plenty of drugs and guns move through the Metro system each day.) SPOG, the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild, didn’t come out demanding that public transit be abolished.
They didn’t do these things because they would have been ridiculous.
But that’s exactly what happened to the homeless after the Jungle shootings.
That sort of inflammatory and largely irrelevant rhetoric only avoids seeming absurd because it comes after a months-long local backlash against homeless encampments and the homeless themselves. It’s been particularly nasty in Ballard and Magnolia, where, in the wake of the mayor’s office designating parking areas where homeless people in RVs can safely stay, multiple public meetings have been dominated by angry, often fantastical testimony. (My favorite: the persistent allegation, despite repeated SPD denials that they’d seen any evidence of any such thing, that the homeless were operating mobile meth labs out of their RV’s. Helpful hint: Breaking Bad was fiction..)
It also didn’t help that at the exact moment of the Jungle shootings, Mayor Ed Murray was standing in front of cameras talking about the results of the previous night’s One Night Count, which both showed the number of people counted as homeless had gone up a staggering 19 percent in the previous year – and an even more alarming 40 percent in two years – but that much of the growth took place outside Seattle’s city limits, in other parts of King County, as homeless people continue to spread out in search of safe places to sleep and to find unclaimed patches from which to congregate or panhandle.
Three months ago, Murray declared a state of emergency on homelessness precisely due to this explosive growth in the number of people who cannot find affordable housing in our area and are on the street instead; and due to the grossly inadequate supply of both shelter beds and transitional housing units to meet that overwhelming demand. Activists have persuaded long-reluctant local officials that in the wake of the shelter bed shortage, homeless people sleeping in community is safer and better than making them fend for themselves individually.
In central urban neighborhoods, homelessness has been a persistent fact of life since the Reagan Revolution, followed by decades of additional state budget cuts, gutted much of the local support systems once in place. I’m old enough to remember the shock, replaced quickly by compassion fatigue, when urban homelessness first energed as a problem in the early ’80s,. Before then, hard as it is to imagine now, cities didn’t have homelessness issues – just a few random drunks and what were then quaintly called hoboes.
A lot of suburbs and city neighborhoods, however, have been insulated from these issues for the past three decades. Homeless people were seen and portrayed as losers, the moral degenerates who harassed you at the on-ramp. People could indulge their stereotypes at a safe distance from the issues that generate homelessness, let alone the punative daily reality faced by those trying to escape it.
The Jungle shootings provided a useful focal point for a local anti-compassion campaign already well underway. It’s not like The Jungle and newer homeless encampments don’t have their problems. Every community does, but most people have doors to hide behind where those problems play out. Being exposed to scrutiny 24/7 also makes for easy targets for predation and for unnatural death.
Both of these recent shootings were neither a homeless issue or a bus issue – they were, at minimum, a kids with guns issue. But it’s easy to scapegoat the powerless. And in our new, wealthier Seattle, it seems to be becoming something of a sport.