The car crashed into a tent near the Northeast 50th Street freeway exit in Seattle’s University District. The driver was taken into custody and is under investigation of vehicular homicide, police said.

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A 19-year-old man who was killed by a car as he slept in a tent in a greenbelt off Interstate 5 early Monday had felt safe in the place he called “his island,” said Deonna Hughes, the man’s former girlfriend.

Near the scene of the fatal accident, Hughes, 21, said she had dated Walter Stroud and had spent several nights on the small patch of land near the freeway in Seattle’s University District.

She said the young man went by several names, including Walter Burton and Kingwalt LeDiamond. The King County Medical Examiner’s Office identified him as Burton.

Hughes wasn’t there at about 5 a.m. Monday when a car left the 50th Street offramp and careened up a hill and over the tent in which Stroud was sleeping. The vehicle then struck a tree.

The driver fled but was later caught and arrested on investigation of vehicular homicide, according to Washington State Patrol spokesman Trooper Rick Johnson.

Johnson identified the driver as Oscar Gutierrez de Jesus, 33. He was previously arrested for suspicion of driving under the influence in December 2007, and he was eventually convicted of negligent driving, according to court records.

Hughes did not know Stroud’s whole story, but she said he had been living on the greenbelt since last year, when he set up the three-tent encampment.

A few years ago, Hughes said, Stroud got into trouble, and that prompted him to leave his house.

She said Stroud was “very intelligent, and he had a big heart.”

He was musically talented and skilled at working with computers, she said, as well as being funny, resilient and full of dreams.

“He wanted to be a rapper,” said Anna Cooper, another friend, who described herself as Stroud’s “street mom.”

“He was basically just a kid,” she said.

In the Seattle area, tents are commonly seen along I-5 and other major thoroughfares as a homelessness crisis has gripped the region. Mayor Ed Murray and King County Executive Dow Constantine have declared the region’s homelessness issue a state of emergency.

The number of people sleeping outside in the Seattle area was estimated to be more than 4,500 earlier this year.

Murray, Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole and Seattle Fire Chief Harold Scoggins held a news conference Monday at the site of the fatal crash.

Murray said the tragedy underscores the importance of creating safe places for people without homes.

He said he is still pressing for the federal and state governments to step up and help West Coast cities deal with the crisis of homelessness.

“For years, we talked about what would happen when we cut our social safety net; for years we have talked about income inequality,” Murray said, “but now in cities like Seattle, Portland and San Francisco, we can see every day what income inequality looks like and what happens when we don’t address it as an issue.”

An official with the Washington State Department of Transportation said there may be hundreds of homeless people illegally living on greenbelts along I-5.

“There’s an obvious safety issue with people living in those areas,” department spokeswoman Kris Olsen said. “We try to discourage people living there, but it’s difficult.”

The greenbelts, including the site of Monday’s fatal crash, are cleaned about every two months, Olsen said. The department follows protocol set by the city, providing homeless campers with 72 hours of notice before each cleaning. Campers often return after a few days, Olsen said.

Transportation workers were scheduled to clean the scene of Monday’s crash in October, Olsen said.