WSDOT’s homeless initiative showing some early signs of success

Mar 16, 2023, 7:34 AM | Updated: 9:29 am
homeless encampment...
How do you find places for people in the 2,100 homeless camps along Washington State Department of Transportation’s (WSDOT) right-of-way? (Photo from WSDOT)
(Photo from WSDOT)

I think we all realize just how tough it is to clear homeless camps from the freeway, and only kicking people out doesn’t work. Just a year into the new right-of-way initiative, we’re starting to get an idea of just how hard it is.

Sweeping camps and kicking people out is one way of tackling the problem, but those people come back, or they just move somewhere else. It doesn’t solve the root issue of where they are going to go.

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The state switched up its tactics last year, making sure that the people had someplace to go before those camps were cleared.

But how do you find places for people in the 2,100 homeless camps along Washington State Department of Transportation’s (WSDOT) right-of-way? Let me repeat that number, 2,100 encampments statewide, just on WSDOT property.

WSDOT’s Andrea Fortune told the Washington State Transportation Commission this week that the price for cleaning the garbage has skyrocketed.

“In 2008, it was around $200,000, and in 2022 it was $2.8 million,” Fortune said.

The state legislature has given WSDOT $12 million this biennium for cleanup.

Colin DeForrest is the Homeless Response Manager at the Washington Department of Transportation. He told the commission the state is focusing on the biggest camps first, in King, Pierce, Snohomish, Thurston, and Spokane counties.

“We want to identify a positive step for every one of these individuals to move forward,” DeForrest said. “Whether or not those individuals take it on the first try, the third try, or the fifth try, we’re going to continue trying with these individuals.”

In the first year of this initiative, the state has worked on 17 encampments, including rest areas. It has closed seven of them so far, including a small but very risky camp under State Route 520 at Portage Bay, where workers found “101 propane tanks…removed from underneath the freeway.”

“This is a great example of why this is so very important that we do this work because we all know what happens with fires and propane tanks,” DeForrest said. “There is nothing good that comes of that.”

We saw another huge encampment fire under the West Seattle Bridge and Interstate 5 Wednesday morning. Exploding propane tanks near the freeway is less than ideal.

Of the 1,022 people the state has contacted in these 17 camps, 376 have accepted the housing offered, that’s about 37%. But of those 376 that accepted housing, 269 are still in that housing. or about 72%. That’s progress, albeit small progress.

WSDOT assistant secretary Mike Gribner said people accept or deny the housing help depending on what kind of housing it is. Some don’t want dormitory-style housing, and many are concerned about their stuff.

“Some of the things that may be perceived as garbage may not be garbage to the resident,” Gribner said. “There’s always some consideration on what and how things are disposed of.”

Part of this initiative includes securing belongings for a significant amount of time.

The Governor put $40 million into this initiative, but the state as a whole has put $143 million into this. Yet that only translates into 927 new beds by the end of the year.

I am digging into why the initiative is getting so little for such a huge price, but that’s for another day.

I know a lot of you are very concerned about the encampment on the north end of the Ship Canal Bridge. WSDOT has worked for months on this. It still doesn’t know exactly how many people are living there, but it is actively working to clear it.

Check out more of Chris’ Chokepoints.


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WSDOT’s homeless initiative showing some early signs of success