A shooting in The Jungle: how to help Seattle's homeless?

A shooting near a homeless encampment in Seattle left two people dead and three with serious injuries. It came moments after the mayor gave an inspiring speech on homelessness.

Shannon Stapleton/Reuters
Lantz Rowland, 59, poses in front of his tent at SHARE/WHEEL Tent City 3 outside Seattle, Washington October 8, 2015.

A shooting near a homeless encampment in Seattle Tuesday evening took the lives of two people and landed three more in intensive care.

Moments earlier, Seattle mayor Ed Murray had delivered an impassioned television address to the people of his city, talking about the problem of “rampant homelessness.”

Indeed, Mayor Murray had already declared a state of emergency in November, which is still in place, after 66 homeless people died during the year in King County.

Nor is the problem endemic to Seattle: Hawaii, Los Angeles, and Portland, Ore. all declared similar homeless “states of emergency” last year.

“We are involved in a homelessness crisis the like [of which] we have not seen since the Great Depression,” said Murray, speaking at the scene of the shooting. “There is no simple answer.”

Police first arrived at “The Jungle,” the local colloquialism for a wooded area of greenbelt that has for decades been the site of a homeless encampment, after receiving reports of gunfire about 7.15pm Tuesday.

The victims lived in the encampment, and police “have reason to believe [the shooting] was very targeted,” said Assistant Seattle Police Chief Bob Merner, according to The New York Times.

After learning of the killings, Mayor Murray admitted The Jungle has been “unmanageable and out of control” for almost 20 years.

But in his television address just before the gunfire erupted, he spoke to the wider picture, using words, reported by The Washington Post, that were all too poignant in the light of what followed:

“I hear your frustrations and I share them…. People are dying on our streets. We are working on a complex problem in real time.”

But while the mayor’s state of emergency also came with a pledge of $7 million to tackle the crisis, this latest incident will serve only to intensify the debate over whether enough is being done.

The mayor himself shared similar uncertainties, as he reacted to the shooting:

“I can’t help but wonder, did I act too late?” he said. “That’s my reaction. Maybe I should have issued the state of emergency months earlier. We have tried to do the best we can given the circumstances we’ve been given. Obviously I’m going to ask if I did a good enough job. It’s on me in the end.”

So, what is being done to tackle this problem, plaguing not only Seattle but much of the United States? Indeed, Murray spoke of homelessness as a “national tragedy” in his speech before the shootings, reported The Seattle Times.

“This isn’t a Seattle problem. This is a statewide and a national problem,” the mayor said earlier in the day. “I can walk you through almost every town or city in this state and show you homeless encampments.”

He talked of slashed mental health budgets, income inequality, and a “national heroin epidemic.”

He insisted he would not end the state of emergency until there was a significant reduction in the number of homeless people dying.

The city has opened two tent encampments on land leased from Seattle City Light, and Murray recently promised to open two safe-parking sites for people living in their vehicles.

Seattle will spend $50 million in 2016 to address homelessness, but the mayor said that was simply insufficient, and predicted that, without federal and state aid, the problem will persist.

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