Three Seattle teens arrested in 'Jungle' shooting. What can city do?

Three teenage boys were arrested for fatally shooting two people, and wounding three more, in a homeless encampment the mayor calls 'out of control.'

Mike Siegel/The Seattle Times/AP
Crime scene tape blocks off an area Wednesday, in Seattle, where a fatal shooting occurred the night before at a homeless encampment. Police arrested three teens in connection with the shooting on Monday.

Seattle police arrested three teenagers underneath an Interstate 90 ramp on Monday afternoon, suspects in the January 26 killing of two people and wounding of three more in a homeless encampment known as The Jungle.

The boys, ages 13, 16, and 17, are believed to have known the victims, and at least two of them are suspected of shooting them during a low-level, drug-dealing argument. Police did not release further information about the suspects, but said they did not believe any others remained at large.

"This violent crime shocked Seattle," Mayor Ed Murray said in a statement thanking police and their federal, state and local law enforcement partners.

The incident cast a dark shadow on the city's plans to establish additional transitional encampments to accommodate the thousands of people living on the streets and prompted the mayor to reiterate calls for long term solutions to the homeless crisis, which has prompted states of emergency in Seattle, Hawaii, and Los Angeles.

The morning of the crime, Mayor Murray had begun a "media blitz" to call attention to homelessness in Seattle, but also nationwide, and explain why he felt the city's $50 million allocation for homelessness in 2016 was not enough without more state and federal assistance.

"It’s about the fact that we don’t fund mental health. It’s about the fact that we’re in a national heroin epidemic. It’s about the fact that income inequality has made it hard for some people who work to sleep anywhere except in a tent in an illegal spot," he said last week, in remarks he planned to echo in an evening speech at Mary's Place, a Seattle homeless shelter.

Minutes before the televised speech, however, the shooting broke out, killing Jeannine Zapata and James Tran. Three survivors are still being treated in Harborview Medical Center.

"The Jungle," a 100-acre tract owned by the state Department of Transportation, has concerned Seattleites for decades. 

"Even if we didn’t have a homeless problem, I believe it would be ground zero for criminal activity in this city. It just structurally lends itself to that," the mayor told the Seattle Times Editorial Board last week. The administration says it's intensified efforts to shut down the encampment, out of fears for residents' safety. 

It's only a small piece of Murray's plan to fight homelessness. Some 47 homeless Seattleites died between January and September 2015, prompting the mayor to announce a state of emergency in November. It's an increasingly common tactic among cities and states worried about rising homelessness, from Los Angeles to Hawaii, that can help free up funds to tackle the problem's many cause.

Seattle has opened two new encampments, with a third still planned, as well as two safe-parking spaces for people living in their cars. The administration says it will also change how shelters work, making providers accountable for their users' outcomes, and focusing on individuals' needs, in order to get local funding. 

"Our shelters are basically not functioning the way the shelter system should. People are staying in shelters for months and years. It’s broken," Murray said. The mayor has also argued that "Cities cannot do this alone."

In January 2015, there were 565,000 people homeless nationwide: a two percent decrease from 2014. However, the number of chronically homeless people had risen four percent from the year before. Some cities have seen success from housing-first programs, which provide for basic needs as a foundation for future progress like finding a job or treatment. One quarter of people who experience homelessness have a job, Jeffrey Jones, the former director of the National Coalition on Homelessness, told Al Jazeera in 2013. 

Declaring a state of emergency can help secure funds to fight the complex problem, but it also sends an important message: this community cares.

"Raising the visibility and urgency of the situation as Mayor Murray has done," is "absolutely the right thing to do to make it a more urgent issue for the community," Abt Associates senior associate Tom Albanese told The Christian Science Monitor in January. 

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

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