If it seems like there are a lot more tents along I-5 in Seattle, you’re not imagining it.
Despite ongoing efforts to tackle the problem, don’t expect the illegal campsites to go away anytime soon.
No one has an accurate count, but Travis Phelps, spokesperson with the Washington State Department of Transportation, confirms it’s a significant increase.
“It has grown quite a bit. It’s not just something you’re noticing; we’re noticing it as well,” Phelps said.
It’s the WSDOT’s problem, in part, because the state owns much of the land alongside the freeway. The camping is illegal and considered trespassing.
Phelps says crews do their best to clean up and clear out the camps at least every few months. But even spending upwards of $250,000 a year, resources are spread thin.
“Our maintenance crews are balancing this need with other things like filling potholes, repairing guardrails, and keeping up with the rest of the freeway system,” he said.
Phelps admits WSDOT isn’t eager to simply roust those down on their luck, even if it is the law.
So what’s fueling the increase?
Sola Plumacher with the Department of Human Services in Seattle says homelessness has increased 21 percent this year over last.
She says the city works closely with WSDOT and sends teams out regularly to try to counsel the homeless campers about shelters and other services. But she says there just aren’t enough beds to go around.
“Our sheltering services are full,” Plumacher said. “Beds do not go un-utilized. There are more people outside than we are able to shelter inside.”
It seems like things have gotten worse, not better since the city launched its 10-year effort to end homelessness in 2005.
A study by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development released earlier this year ranked Seattle and King County fourth overall for homelessness behind only New York City, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas.
But Plumacher says in the last six months, the city has taken a number of steps based on the recommendations of a mayoral task force to chip away at the problem.
“First recommendations to be set in motion was to open up a youth shelter facility in the Capitol Hill area for 20 individuals,” she said.
The city also recently opened a new shelter in North Seattle for 80 women and men and their children. Another new shelter will open on lower Queen Anne this fall for up to 100 men a night.
“And then we are planning to open three transitional encampments at some point during this year to be sited in three different areas,” Plumacher said.
None of that alone will solve the homelessness crisis. Many simply choose to stay out there for a number of reasons — a big one being most shelters won’t take couples or people with pets.
But Plumacher says you have to start somewhere.
“It’s very slow, but it’s steady right now,” she said. “These are really unprecedented investments for the city. In the last several years, we’ve really kind of had a moratorium on new shelter beds. So these are big steps in the right direction. ”