State removes first highway encampment on its own, hotel opens for homeless

There was no hoopla, no protests, no arrest—just an encampment clean-up along I-5 that came and went without a hitch. However, it was the first encampment removal where the State of Washington did it all themselves, without any help from the City of Seattle.

For years, Seattle has been the lead in removing encampments on state-owned right-of-ways on I-5 and I-90, with the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) providing a supporting role.

Gov. Inslee and WSDOT have faced criticisms for not doing more to manage encampments along the shoulders of highways, underpasses, and inside the cloverleaf of interchanges.

Tuesday morning marked a change, when an encampment on the Olive Way on-ramp to northbound I-5 was cleaned in an operation led by the state. 

"This is a first," said Morgan Balogh, Assistant Director of Maintenance and Operations for the Northwest Division of WSDOT. 

The Department of Commerce contracted with Just Care, a Seattle-based homeless outreach group, to get people out of the tents and into temporary housing. Four of the five people accepted temporary housing provided by the King County Regional Homelessness Authority (KCRHA). The fifth left on their own to find another place to stay.

All had left before a 12-person WSDOT crew moved in Tuesday morning to remove the debris left behind by the campers and erect fencing to prevent further camping.

"The equipment that runs along the roadway is usually on the shoulders here," said Balogh. "It’s a reason why we picked this spot, and we want to change it to make it little less desirable for people to live in."

People living in tents along state highways cannot stay if offered shelter, Gov. Inslee says

People living in encampments along state highway right-of-ways will soon have to make a decision, Governor Jay Inslee said: take shelter or move.

At the same time, King County Executive Dow Constantine announced the opening of hotel in North Seattle to house people living unsheltered.

But in an often confusing matrix of housing for the homeless, it will not be used to house those living along the highway.

More than 130 people are scheduled to move into the former Extended Stay Suite Hotel on Stone Way near 130th Avenue North this week. The majority will be coming from the Downtown Emergency Services Center (DESC)-operated shelter that was the Red Lion Hotel in Renton.

Prior to the pandemic, the people at the Red Lion had been staying at DESC shelter across the street from the King County Courthouse. It was a congregate shelter that featured bunk beds in large rooms, and often was a source of many police department responses.

"People can stay here as long as they like until they find a permanent housing destination," said Noah Fey, Director of Housing for DESC.

The hotel housing shuffle has become the norm as different agencies, with different budgets funded by federal, state and local governments, try to work together to house the unsheltered in King County.

The KCRHA is supposed to be a solution to the shuffle. It’s intended to be a one-stop source for all forms of shelter and housing, but its own funding has become embroiled in politics. The City of Seattle and King County have become its sole funders, and the county’s other 38 cities have not funded the KCRHA at all.

FOX 13 News asked Constantine if he’s willing to call out cities that are not contributing funds to the KCRHA by name.

"I’m willing to continue inviting them to fully participate in the homelessness effort," Constantine said.

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Cities, counties and agencies like the KCRHA can now apply to the state for grants to fund housing for people living along state highways. It’s housing the highway homeless has become a priority for Gov. Inslee.

There are plans to do more highway camp removals throughout the state, but a spokesperson for WSDOT say it will not announce publicly when and where those removals will take place. They said campers will get a 72-hour warning notice with it’s their turn to move.