Friday, September 30, 2022

Washington's Right of Way Safety Initiative addressing homeless encampments on state roadways, property

By WSDOT staff

This spring work began on the state's Right of Way Safety Initiative, a new partnership of state and local partners to find solutions for people living homeless on state highway rights of way.

This initiative is led by three state agencies – the state departments of Commerce and Transportation and the Washington State Patrol. It's a result of Gov. Jay Inslee's request to the Legislature earlier this year to address increasing safety issues along state highways. Our agencies do this work in partnership with numerous local governments and non-profit partners.

While homelessness isn't new on state lands, funding provided by Legislature this past session allows for new approaches and opportunities to augment city resources to provide shelter and housing options. Commerce has $143 million for a variety of services and types of housing, including $45 million from the initial legislative proviso.

The work has started in five counties: King, Pierce, Thurston, Snohomish and Spokane. Initial efforts are centered along some of our largest interstate corridors, but the ultimate goal is to expand these efforts as more funding and resources allow.

Early successes

This outreach and housing approach has been visible in both King and Thurston counties this year, where we've had some early successes clearing areas at five sites – some stretching over many sections of an interchange.

Since starting this work in June, two sites have been cleared in Thurston, with outreach underway at new locations. In King County three sites have been cleared, including one large site at Dearborn and I-5, and work continues for other sites. While not everyone moves into the housing offered to them, those who do have had good outcomes. Of the 77 people who have accepted housing so far, 73 – 95 percent – remain housed, a testament to the early outreach identifying needs and options. In addition, these sites have now been cleaned, modified in some instances to discourage future encampments, and have not been reinhabited.

Safety, partnerships and roles

The Right of Way Safety Initiative focuses on state highway rights of way because of the inherent safety risk these sites pose to anyone on them. Vehicles pass these locations at 70 mph or higher, regular inspections and access are needed, emergency and planned construction takes place, etc.

These areas are not safe places for anyone to be living, and the encampments make these areas unsafe for crews working on these sites, for passing motorists who can be distracted and the neighbors of these areas.

Our efforts are very much a partnership between the state agencies as well as local partners and that is vital because there are several steps that need to happen to clear an encampment and help people find shelter or housing. Those steps and the agencies who work on them are:

  1. Identify and offer shelter and services to people living at a site (local jurisdiction & service/outreach providers; funding offered by Commerce)
  2. Provide secure storage of their belongings (local jurisdiction & service/outreach providers)
  3. Ensure safety and security for people on site and work crews (local law enforcement & WSP)
  4. Restore and clean up the property (WSDOT)

Stopping the cycle is labor-intensive work

Homelessness is a challenging issue. We hear from people who are frustrated and want fast solutions, but we've found during recent years that connections to services and housing are necessary for stopping the cycle of displacement and encampment. This process takes time and work from skilled outreach teams.

Without this type of outreach, clearing an encampment merely displaces people to some other area of the community. Forcing people to move to another site is a quick, temporary action that is neither sustainable nor humane.

The state's Right of Way Safety Initiative allows for a new approach. The funding requires that housing be offered to the people living on any site we address, including outreach to individuals so we can find the best possible solution for them. This involves strong partnerships with local government and a wide swath of non-profit groups who can do that critical outreach work. This work starts long before a site is posted with a deadline for people to leave the site – and is already underway in various degrees in all five counties.

This type of work takes time, but it also allows us to make meaningful progress and put people on the path of long-term, permanent housing.

Moving forward

Each site and community are different, which is why it's so important to have meaningful, productive partnerships with local governments and outreach groups. In some cases, such as Spokane, that may mean fencing an area (for the security of those within the camp and the local neighborhood) while outreach takes place, in others it's identifying hotels or other sites that can be turned into long-term housing. It's usually a variety of approaches.

The local governments and outreach partners play key roles because they're able to identify their local needs as well as have the connections with area providers who can help meet those needs on the ground.

This work doesn't happen overnight, but we are looking forward to making more progress in the coming months which will help bring people inside as well as remove the safety risks from encampments on rights of way.

1 comment:

WSDOT said...

Camille Buchanan commented October 15, 2022 at 11:30 a.m.:

I want to support any efforts to clean up and remove homeless encampments. It is a problem even more troubling for property owners impacted by damage, garbage, breakins, debris and threats of assault by homeless drug or alcohol addicts. Where in this policy is a focus on rights of property owners,

I live in City of Tacoma on 7th and Market. City of Tacoma has policy that owners responsible to clean up, chase off and or deal with homeless camped on their property. A recent example: I live in secure Condo Building- lately lots of attempts and or success at breaking in and or running in when owners open secure garage to park vehicle. One incident the homeless entrance- broke into back of newer car of an owners, did all kinds of damage including blood all over. The DTP patrol service or a call to Police on 9-1-1 resulted in they would not come and remove the intruder or press any charges. We had to wait outside (Board President) for the intruder to leave. Now in what world is that ok?

The State, Counties have received Covid relief funds from the Feds to address partly these homeless issues due to loss of jobs Covid. I do not get a drug addict or alcohol has rights to remain on street- cause this type of damage and or move into private property. In the example I gave, the intruder camps on on one of the condo work/live doors off Court D. As a Condo Association, where is the funding to help us installed gates to protect the private entrances off Court D from allowing easy access for homeless to camp out?

No wonder everyone all over the country - and in polls is saying top of the list of concerns is crime. I am and have voted Democrat my whole life. I am - along with many people I know - considering registering as independent.

Please respond as to if owners, business and individuals impacted by homeless encampments and or the crime and cost they create to these entities can have a say on policy, budget, protocols and any grant money to setup temp housing, drug counseling or whatever to no have us be a crisis problem like currently in Los Angeles, as an example

Camille Buchanan

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