Encampments along I-5 lead to call for more permanent tent cities

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Bags of trash collected from I-5 camps are hauled away (Image: Bryan Cohen)

IMG_3681IMG_3716A 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.”

IMG_3740According 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.

“We just need some services to get back on our feet,” he said.IMG_3688

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23 thoughts on “Encampments along I-5 lead to call for more permanent tent cities

  1. That we are talking about tent cities and not actual shelters and boarding houses is really messed up. I do not support half measures like tent cities. Public health and safety are not respected by sanctioning homeless encampments. ‘Managing’ them with toilets and removing trash is not even the least we can do. I support the creation of large scale shelters where individuals can check themselves into in the evening so that they are not sleeping one tarp away from the dirt each night.

  2. If it’s truly the case that this city has zero open shelter beds for people that actually want to seek help, then let’s do something about it. You’d think the city, with its love for blue-ribbon commissions, would have some recommendations for us to vote on.

    That said, I think the main issue here is that people from all over the country know that Seattle is a city that tolerates anything with no consequences.

    • It is probably true that, on the coldest nights of the year, shelter beds are not available. But, otherwise, they are. The problem is that many homeless choose to not go there, because the rules keep them from using drugs or alcohol.

  3. Its really sad that 500k is spent to clean up the mess only to have the mess return a short time after. What an epic waste of money.

    I often field questions from people who visit Seattle on the amount of homeless we have and the tents and trash that are allowed along I-5. Those that live elsewhere have a perception that we in Seattle are caring, clean and well off. They receive a reality check as they make their way into the city from the airport. We’re in fact none of those because we allow rampant homeless and tolerate the mess that is created.

    We build a shiny new this and a fancy new that. Meanwhile we have people living in tents all around us.

  4. We are not doing the homeless any favors by allowing them to camp in parks, along I-5 and sleep on sidewalks and in entryways. Most are drug addicted and/or mentally ill. They need better shelter and treatment. We, as a city, need to enforce some tough love. Fund drug treatment center and take the street people there. If if is clear they do not need drug, treatment, try to find available shelter, job training and more permanent housing

    • what evidence do you have that most homeless people in the city are mentally ill and drug addicted? You probably only identify people as homeless when they are experiencing symptoms of psychosis or high. You probably don’t realize thst the nice old lady enjoying a cup of coffee at Starbuck’s has all her Worley possessions in the bag she’s carrying. Yes we need better Tx, but that will not solves the problem. When will we realize that the causes of homelessness vary and the single biggest cause is economics.

      • One need only to observe the homeless people that you see everyday panhandling, wandering around and you can tell many have issues with drugs and alcohol and or mental illness issues.

  5. Why does Seattle unilaterally have to deal with region’s homeless problem? Look at the One Night Out counts and you’ll see Seattle has close to 80% of the King County homeless population despite only having 30% of the overall population of the county. Other cities need to step up. Seattle can’t solve this alone or we’ll just further become the destination of the regional homeless population. There needs to be shelters in Bellevue, Kent, Renton too.

    • those other cities don’t allow camping and sleeping on sidewalks, that’s why they come to Seattle. For instance yesterday on the ave I saw three guys passed out in doorways with a huge stench of urine. Personally I don’t think that should be allowed, in fact I think it is morally wrong to allowed. U can see the same thing downtown and on Capitol Hill.

    • The downside to compassion is this. The other cities move them along, and homeless people know that Seattle will leave them alone. So they come. A rational decision for them.

      • I just don’t see it as compassion. Compassionate people would try to get them into treatment and not allow sidewalk sleeping. I have experience in addiction. Addicts don’t usually seek help, they need strong encouragement.

    • Because Seattle is where the other cities send their homeless with one way bus tickets cause they know liberal Seattle will take care of them. Bellevue can’t have homeless people messing up the classy high end shopping and dining by panhandling like they do here in Seattle.

  6. CHS (? Justin), who exactly did you talk to at WSDOT about the issue of whether or not SPD has jurisdiction over the homeless camps? I spoke with Jim McBride, who is in charge of maintenance for WSDOT, and he told me the exact opposite of what you say in the update. That’s why the “no trespassing” signs have been posted along I5, so that the SPD can legally enter those WSDOT areas and trespass (i.e. kick out) the campers.

    • We’ll have more details soon. See update above. The WSDOT rep we talked to was technically correct when we asked about a policy change — but there has been a change in how trespasses can be handled by SPD. More soon. Sorry for the confusion.

  7. Seattle does a good job dealing with the institutional poor – the people who get a place in an SHA building, or who can find a decent section 8 apartment.

    Low income old people also fare pretty well, especially if they are property owners – the property tax discount, minor home repair service and utility discount make it possible for them to stay in their home, or they can go live in one of the SHAG complexes.

    But the working poor, mentally ill, and addicts without support networks are the ones who end up on the street, and we do essentially nothing for them.

  8. Forty two million dollars a year on homeless programs and all Seattle has accomplished is to become a magnet for drifters from everywhere. Seeing the connection there yet Seattle?

      • A good start would be to repeal the Reagan tax cuts and restore the federal commitment to housing that he ended. Most people under 50 today don’t even know that homelessness was virtually eliminated in the U.S. from about 1950 to the early ’80s. One did see panhandlers back then — there was hunger and other forms of deprivation — but just about everyone had at least a room to go to at night, and access to a kitchen and bathroom somewhere. There’s no reason we can’t achieve this very modest goal again.