WA Legislature approves funding for cities to clean up encampments along highways

The Washington Legislature approved hundreds of millions of dollars in spending to help the state's homeless population, but Gov. Jay Inslee’s plan to set up a new agency to handle the encampments along state highways has failed.

Some cities are getting substantial funds to clean up encampments; cities like Fife, of which nearly a fifth is comprised of state highways.

Homeless encampments along state highways are becoming a monumental problem. Lawmakers estimate there are around 1,700 across Washington.

Inslee wanted to create a new bureaucracy in state government to deal with it.

"To service the thousands of people now living under bridges, sidewalks on the shoulders of our freeways," said Gov. Inslee in a press conference, "and we need to do this now."

The state Senate approved the decision, but the House never put it to a vote.

 "I, among my colleagues, still have some concern about this bill and [am] going to encourage a ‘no’ vote," said Andrew Barkis, R-Olympia.

So instead, Democratic lawmakers set aside $45 million in grant money over the next two years for cities to do the work themselves, removing the encampments and finding people housing.

By comparison, the City of Seattle is spending more than $200 million this year on its own homeless issues, without any state help.

The legislature earmarked just $8 million for cleanup of highway encampments to be spread statewide, and cities like Fife got extra money.

I-5, Highway 509 and the new 167 extension are within Fife’s city limits.

On Monday, officials had crews bulldoze a homeless encampment on state right-of-way land. Starting summer 2022, they will begin construction of the Highway 167 extension, but for years, homeless camps have been popping up and the state has done very little about it—leaving it up to the City of Fife.

"Petty crime, more severe crime, [you] see and hear shots fired frequently on the state right-of-way, yet very little we could do in terms of getting people off of that area," said Fife Interim City Manager Russ Blount.

But, the City of Fife does not have apply for a grant like everyone else in the state; it got a special $2 million allocation. It has had to remove camps off state highway land for years.

"Sooner might have been better, but now is better than never, and we are glad to have the commitment, and look forward to making this a success," said Blount

Critics argue that, for years, state lawmakers were shirking their responsibilities to deal with homeless camps on WSDOT property. This year, there appears to be money to help cities.

Still, the state will let the cities to the heavy lifting of clearing the camps and finding housing for the campers.

RELATED: Liberal US cities change course, now clearing homeless camps

READ MORE: Seattle’s longest running ‘sanctioned’ homeless camp must move but has no place to go

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