A group of men were sprawled out on a grassy hillside near 7th and James on an afternoon last week, surrounded by collapsing tents, blankets, and suitcases. They were watching as two backhoes lifted piles of trash and shopping carts full of belongings into a dump truck.
The men had been staying in the fenced off area where the Washington State Department of Transportation trucks were working — a well known homeless camp on a stretch of state-owned land along I-5 between Jackson and James.
The state spends some $250,000 a year to clear hundreds of encampments along state roads and highways in the Puget Sound area, according to WSDOT spokesperson Travis Phelps. But that doesn’t keep campers out.
“They come back within days or hours,” Phelps said. “They show up with bolt cutters and get right back in.”
Yesler Terrace neighborhood activist Kristin O’Donnell said public safety issues have been on the rise over the past two years as the Yesler Way camp has grown. Nearby residents have specifically blamed the campsite for burglaries, aggressive panhandling, and trash piles.
Some are there by choice. Some are there because there isn’t any place else to go.
As president the Seattle Housing Authority’s Resident Action Council Board, O’Donnell said she has been advocating for a more permanent, rules-based camp at the location.
“We’re willing and glad to have a supervised tent city in Yesler Terrace with portos and water,” she said. “It’s a real possibility that most of the people in those camps would be perfectly good neighbors.”
According to Phelps, WSDOT has no plans to sanction a tent city in the area, as the steep drop-offs onto the interstate make camping too hazardous.
“It’s not exactly the safest spot to be … It really is a safety issue,” he said. The Nickelsville camp on Dearborn is the closest sanctioned camp to Yesler.
Next month, the SHA will host a community meeting to discuss the Yesler camp — specifically, how the land could be better put to use. Joy Bryngelson, a Yesler Terrace community organizer with SHA, said setting up an urban farm is one possibility. What’s not on the agenda is setting up a permanent tent city, as Bryngelson said there is no indication from the state that they would support it. Details of the meeting are still being finalized.
And it’s not just the Yesler camp that could use help and services. Taking a walk along the I-5 Shores of Capitol Hill reveals camps of various sizes tucked underneath overpasses, at the edge to tall concrete walls, and spread out on steep tracts of land.
City and state “no trespassing” signs dot the landscape along I-5 in the Central Area, but most areas are easily accessible. People have suffered serious falls getting to and from the camps.
UPDATE: CHS asked SPD and WSDOT about a change mentioned in the CHS comments about changes in police enforcement of trespassing on state property. WSDOT said there has been no policy change and that trespassing is still not a local policing responsibility. Meanwhile, SPD did not respond to our inquiries on the matter. UPDATE: A change we have been told about was confirmed after publication — we’ll work to get official word but we’re told that SPD now has a trespass with WSDOT and can now remove people from off-limits area without the presence of state employees. We’ll have more details soon.
In a campsite near Pine and Melrose last week, a homeless man was resting under a tree stapled with a notice that crews would be arriving that day to remove any personal belongings. Crews typically post 72-hour notices before removing camps.
The largest of the I-5 camps are cleared on a rotating basis, Phelps said, which involve crews from WSDOT, the Department of Corrections, and state highway patrol. Phelps said that crews try to connect campers with social services.
A man watching crews clear his campsite told CHS he would likely return because he had nowhere else to go.