CHOKEPOINTS

WA homeless program showing early signs of helping those living off highways

Oct 4, 2022, 6:49 AM | Updated: 7:09 am

Ship Canal Bridge encampment...

The encampment underneath Seattle’s Ship Canal Bridge — stretching across both sides of the I-5 express lanes near 42nd Street — has yet to be cleared, despite a sixth reported fire over the last month. (Sam Campbell/KIRO Newsradio)

(Sam Campbell/KIRO Newsradio)

The fire under the Ship Canal Bridge last week highlighted just how dangerous it can be to have freeways and homeless encampments so close together, not just for camp residents, but for travelers. That camp is now being evaluated and addressed by the state government under a new program that is already showing positive results.

The Governor and legislature launched the “Right of Way Safety Initiative” to great fanfare earlier this year. It’s a program that finally throws all the players together to remove these camps and get residents into housing.

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With the new funding, $143 million in total so far, the initiative has set out to provide services to reduce homeless camps in King, Pierce, Thurston, Snohomish, and Spokane counties.

The Washington Department of Transportation’s Barbara LaBoe said the money helps local agencies go into these encampments, assess what the people need, and find them a new place to stay before they clear the areas, which are on state land.

“The focus on this is not to just merely move someone from the encampment – although those areas are not safe – but to find them a better living situation; be that a shelter or on the pathway to permanent housing,” LaBoe said.

The state has focused on some of the biggest camps along Interstate 5 and Interstate 90, having cleared five of them so far, three in Thurston County and two in King County. The largest of the camps was in Seattle at Dearborn and I-5.

One of the challenges of clearing these homeless encampments is that the people generally don’t have another place to go, they just move on down the road to a new camp. With this program, the housing is there before the camps are cleared, with the hopes that people will accept offers for transitional housing more often.

And so far, LaBoe said, the program is successful.

“98 people were offered housing, sometimes at shelters and sometimes at permanent housing, and of that 98, 77 people accepted,” she said.

That’s a high amount of people accepting help moving to a shelter, considering what we have seen historically.

Plus, they are more likely to remain in housing. A recent check on those 77 who accepted help, found that 73 of them are still in housing.

“If you go in and just try to move people, they will likely find another place to live outside,” LaBoe said. “That’s not the end goal that we want. It’s not good for them. It’s not good for the overall community. This takes a little longer, but it seems to have better outcomes in the end.”

Unlike sweeps, this program spends a lot of time in the camp before ever giving notice of removal. This allows workers to create trust with those in the camps and to help find them places to go.

That work is already underway at the site of the fire last week under the Ship Canal Bridge.

“That Ship Canal Bridge site is one of the ones we’re aware of, and we do have outreach groups already making some contacts there,” LaBoe said.

The goal is to take this model statewide, but that will require a lot more money going forward.

Check out more of Chris’ Chokepoints.

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WA homeless program showing early signs of helping those living off highways