Gov. proposes division to handle homeless encampments along state highways

The Washington State Senate, as requested by Gov. Jay Inslee, proposed a bill on Feb. 2 that would create a subdivision of the Department of Social and Health Services that would focus on ‘intergovernmental coordination to address the cleaning of homeless encampments. 

The goal of the "Office of Intergovernmental Coordination on Public Right of Way Homeless Encampments" is to reduce the number of people living along the highway and eventually, get them into permanent housing.

Another goal of the division is to provide grants to local governments or nonprofit organizations, but there is no direct money to fund the new agency or pay for camp removals and temporary housing for its campers.

"The problem that I’ve seen with this is we lack a coordinated response for some of our most vulnerable Washingtonians," said Senator Patty Kuderer, a Democrat representing Bellevue who is sponsoring the bill for Inslee.

Inslee's office estimates that there are about 1,700 unsanctioned encampments along state-owned highways. These include tents hidden in the brush on the embankments, visible tent cities along on and off-ramps to interstates, and under overpasses.

It’s been the responsibility of cities and counties to police and manage these camps, despite the camps being on state-owned property. 

The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) has repeatedly said that the agency is not equipped to handle homeless campers and the outreach needed to get them off state property and into temporary housing.

Cities like Seattle, Tacoma, Fife and Olympia have been using city taxpayer funds to do outreach, camp removals and arrest people if they commit a crime in the camps, even though the camps are the responsibility of the state because they are on state property.


King County rejects bill aiming to create standards for removing homeless encampments

Legislation for removing homeless encampments across King County was shot down by the county's Local Services Committee.

"The city of Olympia traditionally has had a difficult time coordinating with the state when it comes to homelessness response," said Olympia Councilmember Dontae Payne. 

Payne said the state has helped with some camps, but that is a new development.

In Fife, where I-5 and the new interchange with Highway 167 make up about 20% of the city’s landmass, the city has had to deal with approximately 300 campers along the highways.

"The challenge is overwhelming for just one city" said lobbyist Doug Levy, who spoke on behalf of a Fife City Councilmember at a State Senate hearing.

WSDOT is frustrated as well. In a report released in November 2021 by the department, it said, "During the pandemic, resources and crews have been stretched more thin and in some cases, health officials recommended against removing encampments that don't pose immediate safety concerns." 

Homeless advocates testified they don’t want the new agency to be focused on camp sweeps.

"We want to ensure that this will not lead to people being moved unnecessarily when there's no imminent risk of harm," said Sara Robbins, the policy director for the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness.

SB 5662 received a ‘do pass’ recommendation from the Senate Housing & Local Government Committee on Wednesday by at 7-3 vote with both Republicans and Democrats voting in favor of the bill.

It now moves onto the Senate rules committee.

Stay connected with FOX 13 News on all platforms:
DOWNLOAD: FOX 13 News and Weather Apps
WATCH: FOX 13 News Live
SUBSCRIBE: FOX 13 on YouTube
DAILY BRIEF: Sign Up For Our Newsletter
FOLLOW: Facebook Twitter Instagram