ARLINGTON — Homeless people in recreational vehicles were filling the parking lot almost nightly at the Smokey Point rest area before it was closed in 2021, according to a state report on encampments in state right-of-way.
It was one of 281 encampments identified between 2015 and September 2022 on Washington State Department of Transportation right-of-ways in Snohomish County. That was the second-highest tally, behind King County’s 922.
“The fact there are unhoused people on DOT right of way is not a new thing,” the agency’s assistant secretary Mike Gribner said in a Washington State Transportation Commission meeting Tuesday. “What is different is the volume and the prolific increases we see now across the United States.”
Encampments aren’t safe for people sleeping alongside highways and under bridges or for state transportation maintenance crews, WSDOT maintenance policy manager Andrea Fortune said.
Conditions at encampments, where propane tanks and hypodermic needles were sometimes found, kept employees from reaching traffic signals and other infrastructure, she said.
Costs to clean those sites grew from around $200,000 in 2008 to $2.8 million last year, according to WSDOT data. The state normally relies on volunteers or incarcerated people for litter cleanup along its highways. But that isn’t an option for encampments, which require contractors or state employees, WSDOT Secretary Roger Millar said.
The Smokey Point rest areas were some of the busiest in the state in 2018 with over 838,000 southbound and 1.2 million northbound visits, according to state data.
Located about 1½ miles north of the Highway 531 and I-5 interchange, vandalism and a shortage of maintenance workers led the state to close the rest area from October 2021 until mid-January last year.
The rest areas have closed occasionally since then for maintenance and pavement work.
They’ve been open since the summer, but RV parking has stayed closed.
“We saw a massive amount of RVs showing up there,” WSDOT Gateway homeless response coordinator Colin DeForrest said Tuesday.
State funding for the Right of Way Safety Initiative requires an offer for housing before an encampment can be cleared. There’s over $143 million available for the program across several state departments, with $5.8 million dedicated to Snohomish County.
Millar said “sweeping” people from an encampment only pushes them into other areas, like downtown, where they get pushed out again.
“We need to do it right,” Millar said Tuesday. “These are people. What would you want done for your child or your mom?”
Of three encampment sites in Snohomish County covered by the initiative’s funding, two have since closed with a majority of people accepting housing, according to the state.
Only the Smokey Point rest area was considered active.
Since outreach began in November, 38 people staying at the Smokey Point rest area were identified as being homeless, WSDOT spokesperson James Poling wrote in an email to The Daily Herald. Of that total, six people were offered and accepted housing through a program run by the Volunteers of America of Western Washington as of Tuesday.
The offer comes with “intensive” case management and a goal of employment, Poling wrote.
People living in vehicles tend to be easier to get into services but people in RVs are “a tough nut to crack,” DeForrest said. They’re mobile and relatively safe at sites like a rest area, especially at Smokey Point, which is farther from metropolitan areas like Everett and Seattle, DeForrest said.
When the Smokey Point rest areas reopen, the RV parking will stay closed but the dump stations will open, DeForrest said. The state has already changed the parking limits signs, assigned numbers to parking stalls to help with enforcement and stenciled commercial parking stalls to reserve them for freight haulers, who can park there up to 11 hours within a day.
The state also plans to add patrols from state troopers and distribute fliers about resources for homeless people.
Ben Watanabe: 425-339-3037; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @benwatanabe.
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