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Lawmaker wants more resources for WSDOT to clear freeway homeless camps

A homeless camp sits along I-5 near 45th in Seattle on Wednesday. (MyNorthwest)

It was a tense Senate Transportation Committee meeting Tuesday as frustrated lawmakers zeroed in on the City of Seattle’s homeless policies.

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Democratic Senator Steve Hobbs made clear from the start he has concerns during the work session in committee with WSDOT and the City of Seattle homeless encampments set up near highways.

“A lot of this has to do with safety,” Hobbs said at the start of the work session. “I’ve seen a lot of tents and debris. One time, I saw a tent nearly blow into the highway. Luckily some folks grabbed on to the tent. I’ve seen a shopping cart almost go into the highway. We’ve already had one death of a person rolling into the highway. There might be more. The other issue is having toured the state and talking to the rank and file DOT maintenance workers who are out there, these hard working men and women, it’s unsafe for them.”

In Seattle, the City and WSDOT share responsibility for clearing encampments along highways and have an agreement to give campers 72 hours’ notice before clearing a camp.

Hobbs believes that is a safety risk.

“I mean 72 hours in that area where I see a tent being blown … that’s dangerous. And 72 hours on an incline right there, that’s dangerous. I’ve seen, and we’ve all seen it, where you have tents on sides of hills where it’s very dangerous,” Hobbs said. “Again, lack of resources, we’re going to provide you resources because I know it’s tough, but … I feel like the 72 hours rule, I think maybe that’s going a little too far.”

But Interim Seattle Human Services Director Jason Johnson told lawmakers the city’s Navigation Team uses those 72 hours wisely.

“I think it’s important to understand what happens during that 72-hour period,” Johnson told the committee. “That’s a period where we can have outreach workers go in and start engaging with folks.”

“Typically, once that 72-hour posting was there and people knew crews were coming, work was going to be done that they were not going to be able to stay in that location,” Johnson added. “There was both the motivation to leave as well as the resource provide and somewhere for them to go. You know there is active work that goes into that 72-hour period.”

But Senator Hobbs took issue with that policy, questioning what might happen if the tent actually did blow into the freeway and into a van full of kids, all because the camp wasn’t cleared due to the 72-hour rule.

Lawmakers also asked Johnson what happens when they do clear campers.

“Some of them engage with our outreach teams and accept offers of shelter,” Johnson admitted. “And sometimes they’ll just vacate the immediate area that’s been posted and go somewhere else nearby.”

Republican Senator Phil Fortunato suggested a new strategy.

“If it was me, I would be sticking a sign out there, a permanent sign that said, ‘If you encamp here, you may be out with no notice whatsoever. We’re considering this a hazardous area for debris so don’t be surprised if somebody shows up and says you’re outta here,'” Fortunato suggested.

Several WSDOT workers and department leaders also described how dangerous it is for workers to clear the camps and deal with gallons of used syringes, feces, and more. They noted several workers had also been stuck with used needles.

Republican Senator Curtis King made clear he had had enough.

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“It’s just inconceivable to me that we allow people to live the way these people are living,” King said. “It’s inconceivable to me that will allow people to live where they’re living. I mean if you look at the contamination that’s down here … if a business had sewage running out of their property, guess what would happen to them?”

He stressed that it wasn’t that he did not have empathy for those on the streets.

“I have a lot of empathy for these people, I’m not hard-hearted,” King said. “But my point is, we’ve talked about this for how many years … in these encampments underneath abutments and roads? And we’re not getting any further. We’re getting further behind. We have laws about involuntary treatment. We need to go in there and do what needs to be done.”

King said there is no doubt it is going to cost money but that it was time to step up.

“We want to talk about doing all these things, at some point we gotta step up and man up and get it done,” King said. “And yeah, it’s gonna cost a heck of a lot of money to do it, but we can’t continue to do what we’re doing because we’re not solving the problem. We’re not even coming close. And yeah, it’s transportation and it’s a whole lot of other things and at some point we, as a state, say enough is enough because it isn’t just about the homeless, it’s about all of the other people that they impact; the workers that we’re talking about here. We need to get this addressed. We need to get it done and we need to find the money to do it.”

Senator Hobbs vowed to work to get the Legislature to approve money for at least four new WSDOT staff to focus on the encampments, and funding for State Patrol to serve as security in clearing encampments and more to help address the homeless crisis.

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