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Frustration boils up over homeless camps along freeways

Senators show frustration over Seattle's policies regarding homeless encampment removals (PHOTO: KOMO News)

Both Democratic and Republican State Senators showed frustration Tuesday over the City of Seattle’s policies regarding homeless encampment removals along state highways.

The chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, Senator Steve Hobbs called in representatives of the Washington State Department of Transportation and the City of Seattle to answer questions about an agreement between both sides about when, why and how camps are removed that are dangerously close to the highways.

“It’s inconceivable that we allow people to live where they are living,” said Senator Curtis King, the ranking Republican Senator on the committee.

The hearing was labeled as a work session but senators used the opportunity to question Jason Johnson, the City of Seattle’s Interim Director of the Department of Human Services, about the city’s policies that some disagreed with.

“The 72-hour rule, I think that's going a little too far,” said Hobbs, who repeated questions for both Johnson and Dave McCormick, Assistant Regional Administrator for WSDOT.

Hobbs wanted to know why camps can’t be removed immediately as soon as tents appear in an area considered a safety hazard to drivers, WSDOT maintenance workers and campers themselves.

Under an agreement, WSDOT shares responsibility with the City of Seattle on police enforcement and clean up of encampments on state right-of-ways.

But lawmakers showed frustration that Seattle isn't working fast enough to remove dangerous camps and the agreement between WSDOT and the City to give a 72 hour warning before clearing a camp.

“During that time, we have outreach workers in the camps trying to get people into services and most people move out before they have too,” said Johnson.

Hobbs said it was time to reevaluate the agreement and provide more money for WSDOT crews and Washington State Patrol to clean up the camps when the state believes they are a hazard.

“I mean, we can't wait, we have to go in there and clean this mess up,” said Hobbs.

He asked Johnson if it was okay for the state to clean up the camps immediately, without a 72 hour notice.

“It is,” Johnson said. “If it's causing a hazard to public safety, individual safety or public health.”

McCormick spoke of the new risks WSDOT workers now face in cleaning up camps — something they were not necessarily trained to do.

“There are gallons and gallons of syringes and needles that are picked up in every clean up,” said McCormick. “They have poked and stabbed our workers."

He estimated four-to-five workers have been stuck in the last couple of years. Workers testified about other dangers such has human feces and garbage.

Some said they feared doing their jobs, such as fixing signal light boxes that were inside camps.

“If a business had sewage running out of their property, guess what would happen to them,” said Senator King. “But we just accept it because we say they are homeless.”

Hobbs questioned McCormick about why the state has to wait 72 hours to remove a camp when there are no trespassing signs posted.

“It’s typical,” said McCormick.

Senator Phil Furtunato offered a suggestion for another sign.

“If you squat here, you may be evicted out of here, instantly with no notice whatsoever,” said the Republican state senator from Auburn.

The work session ended only with an offer from Senator Hobbs to fund the added workers for highway clean ups telling Johnson, “we are here to help.”

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