Jeff Lilley: Seattle Homelessness, Clearing "the Jungle" & Camping Rights

Jeff Lilley is the President of Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission. UGM provides emergency care and long term recovery services to hurting and homeless people in the greater Seattle area. UGM has been on the front lines of Seattle homelessness for over 80 years, starting with serving soup to thousands of homeless and unemployed people during the great depression. Their services have since expanded to tackle areas of hunger, homelessness, poverty, high risk youth and addiction. Recently the city of Seattle asked UGM to lead the charge in cleaning up the homeless encampment under I-5 known as the jungle. In this episode we talk to Jeff about his work in the jungle and the homeless camper’s rights vote currently before Seattle city council.


For most of my life I lived in California. I worked at a place called Hume Lake Christian Camps which is a large youth camp in the Sierra Nevada mountain ranges. For about 30 years I lived near the mountains and raised a family. Seven years ago through a series of events the Lord made it obvious it was time for change and moving in new directions and winked at the mission as a future possibility. As we looked at it we said we have nothing to offer. We had been living in a remote location in the mountains serving middle to upper income youth and all of a sudden the Lord was saying I want you to go to Seattle and work in the inner city with people who have no money whatsoever and have addictions and mental health challenges. We thought the board wouldn’t be interested in our resume but it was just the opposite. Through a series of events they offered the job and we took it with much fear and trembling. The first time my wife and I ever came to Seattle was seven years ago for the final interview with the board.

UGM’s mission

If anyone has been to Seattle recently they have noticed the homeless popping up all over the place. For awhile you could drive off an off ramp and have somebody panhandling (holding the cardboard sign) or standing on a city street. Now it’s become where there are tents popping up and encampments which spill over into more and more parts of the city. It’s pretty clear we have a problem. The mission has been there for 84 years addressing these issues and it is right in the core of what we do. The mission has five key areas it works on:

1. Hunger: last year we did over a million meals just feeding throughout King County

2. Homelessness

3. Poverty

4. Addiction recovery

5. Youth at risk: that’s going into some of the poorest neighborhoods. Most of those are south county where some of the poverty areas are. Also in places like Rainier Valley working with gang leaders and youth in really troubled communities.

History of Union Gospel Mission

In 1932, during the Great Depression, everybody was hurting. A lot of people believed there were jobs in Seattle (fishing jobs, lumber jobs, etc) so they spent the last of their finances to come here only to find there were no jobs here either.

It was the end of the line and people started piling up. The area around where the stadiums are now was known as Hooverville. Around 1,000 people were living in tents year round and it was just swamp land at the time. Hooverville was a huge homeless encampment but not because of addiction or alcoholism or mental health but simply because of the economy and poverty.

Churches started coming together and helping to feed these people. They created what was known as Association of Church which later evolved into Union Gospel Mission.

Current homeless problem

Around eleven years ago King County launched the committee to end homelessness but instead of the numbers going down they have continued to rise. The plan didn’t fail, a lot of good was done, but by the time ten years had gone by there were more people entering into homelessness than they were pulling off the streets. The numbers grew faster than the solutions coming to the table.

They changed their name to All Home. It’s a coalition of service providers coming together along with government agencies to meet the needs. Still, the numbers continue to climb.

The Mayor’s office asked UGM to lead the charge to clean up the notorious encampment under I-5 called the Jungle.  Jeff and his team worked for nearly a year to create alternative housing and prepare the people of the Jungle for the transition.  Days before our recording, Jeff was onsite helping to oversee the sweep.

Jeff also doesn’t see allowing homeless to camp in city parks and public spaces as a viable option.  He sees a tent near a road as unsafe for both the homeless individuals as well as the public.


Sweeps are a tool the city still needs to have as an option but we don’t believe they should use it all the time. Rather than just seeing a homeless encampment and making them move an effort should be made to address the problems going on within those encampments. If we’re really compassionate about these individuals than we want to actually solve the problem that’s there.

Typically we say if we give the title homeless then we need to provide them a home and we’ve solved the problem. But that’s actually faulty thinking. The question is how did you become homeless? When you ask that question you have to solve the problem that created the homelessness to begin with. Otherwise they will fall right back into homelessness.

Future of UGM

One of the things that the mission is working on directly is to convene the churches of Seattle to:

  • Celebrate what God is doing throughout the community

  • Identify some of the unique challenges our city faces

  • Help open the door so the churches can engage with those challenges. One of the things we’re seeing is the trend of churches doing just that and starting to pull together.

How to help

Get involved somehow with an individual in need. They might not be homeless yet, but they might be on the edge of homelessness. They might be fighting addiction or they might be in a situation where they are just hurting.

Contact Information

Instagram: @jeffl7 or @Seattlesugm


Photo by C4Chaos via Flickr