Motorists soon will encounter fewer garbage-strewn camps along state highways in Tacoma and Seattle. State Sen. Steve Hobbs led a push in the recently concluded legislative session to give about $3 million to the Washington State Department of Transportation and Washington State Patrol to finally get serious about clearing camps and keeping them cleared.
One of the challenges of addressing the homeless crisis is that it crosses jurisdictional lines. It does so not just in the sense that homelessness and its effects are widespread but also which agency is responsible — in this case, for cleaning up the mess left behind when ownership of the land might change in just a few yards.
The camps on state highway property have been particularly vexing for years, inflaming tensions between cities and WSDOT over slow response and ultimate responsibility. Moreover, while Seattle engages with homeless residents to help them find shelter and services, the state focuses just on sweeps. That moves the problem around but doesn’t solve it.
Hobbs, a Lake Stevens Democrat, and other lawmakers left no question who is responsible for camps next to highways — WSDOT. And they made it clear that what’s needed is a permanent cleanup crew to keep making the rounds with support from state police.
“In our view, actions constituting an emergency warranting immediate removal include camping on inclines next to an active highway, camping adjacent to an active highway, setting fires near highways, blocking culvert passages, damaging infrastructure, as well as the presence of large debris and dangerous substances including propane canisters, human waste, and used needles in highway right of way,” legislative transportation leaders wrote.
WSDOT has complained for years about the danger and equipment damage caused by homeless camps. Highway workers often risk physical harm around camps. One worker was even stabbed.
There is danger for campers and drivers, too. Many camps are so close to the highway that one resident wandering the wrong way could risk bodily harm and cause an accident. Likewise, a campers’ belongings or trash can roll down an embankment or be blown into traffic.
One other reason for clearing camps goes largely unspoken but is no less important. The proliferation of dirty camps is a tangible sign of the failure of local, state and federal agencies to adequately address the human suffering despite an ever growing amount of money budgeted for homeless services and housing.
Empowering WSDOT is a good start, especially if the cities get on board. Transportation teams might be able to clear a camp, but Seattle and other cities have the expertise to help displaced campers connect to services and shelters. Ideally, a city outreach expert would accompany the WSDOT team on its rounds.
This won’t be the end, though. If this approach is successful, lawmakers should prepare to renew or even increase funding next year. The homelessness crisis was years in the making, and it will take years to fix it.