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Major homeless roadside garbage cleanup starting in Seattle

The side of the road along I-5 or around Seattle often looks a lot like a garbage dump these days.  It’s gotten particularly bad this winter in the express lanes and around the I-90 interchange.

Related: Seattle hiring to clean up after the homeless

But city and state officials say a spring clean is underway, with crews converging Friday on several areas along and under I-5 in the University District.

Fred Podesta, the director of operations for Seattle’s Department of Finance and Administration Services, admits the problem has gotten out of hand, and says one of the big challenges the city and state are trying to tackle is who’s actually responsible for what.

“It’s a matter of assembling those crews, it’s a matter of is it state property, city property, is it a park, is it a public right of way, do streets need to be closed?” Podesta said.

The city recently activated its Emergency Operations Center to coordinate the overall homeless response, and dealing with the ever growing trash is a big focus.

That involves representatives from the Seattle Department of Transportation, Human Services, City Light and others, not to mention the Washington State Department of Transportation, which owns much of the land along I-5.

“With other kinds of managed properties or just trash in general, there’s kind of a client and a customer and somebody to pay for it,” Podesta said. “When it ends up on the roadway, or perhaps state land or private property, it’s more complex in that there’s a lot of people involved and you need to get access and who pays for that?”

Related: City will be more accountable with homeless funding, mayor says

The first focus will be along the I-5 corridor through Seattle, according to Dave McCormick, WSDOT assistant regional administrator in the region helping coordinate the cleanup.

“People will start to see that in the next few days and then next weekend we’ll be doing some pretty intensive cleanup in the express lanes,” McCormick said.

The trash is so bad, WSDOT will close the express lanes the weekend of March 25-26 to get heavy equipment and crews in.

“Trash that ends up on very steep grades, sometimes along steep embankments along I-5, that’s its own issue,” Podesta said. “How do you get equipment and people in there in a safe manner and manage the traffic situation but that’s another reason why we’re trying to get everybody in the room to try and work on this together.”

Cleanup crews will be accompanied by outreach workers to help convince the homeless to seek some of the ever-increasing services available – and try to deter them from immediately returning to the side of the road as soon as the cleanup is complete.

Podesta says it’ll all be handled as humanely as possible.

“Are there private possessions that need to be thought about?  Outreach to folks living outside that might be part of the issue,” Podesta said. “So it’s a lot of different resources brought to bear.”

But what’s to stop the homeless and the huge piles of trash from returning as has been the case repeatedly over the past few years?

Officials say they’ll try a variety of deterrents including more fencing and increased enforcement of trespassing laws in certain places, methods that have repeatedly failed in the past.

But there’s renewed optimism with a new, integrated approach to the homeless that includes more outreach, services and ultimately shelter, fewer people will feel the need to camp along the freeway and in other places, and dump all that trash along the way.

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