The Smokey Point rest area, seen here May 17, 2022, was closed for months due to homeless encampments at the Arlington site. (Olivia Vanni / Herald file)

The Smokey Point rest area, seen here May 17, 2022, was closed for months due to homeless encampments at the Arlington site. (Olivia Vanni / Herald file)

‘Massive amount’ of homeless RV camping closed Smokey Point rest area

Since November, 38 homeless people were identified through outreach. Six have accepted housing offers with case management.

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;; Twitter: @benwatanabe.

Talk to us

More in Local News

News logo for use with stories about Mill Creek in Snohomish County, WA.
Mill Creek house fire leaves 1 dead

The fire was contained to a garage in the 15300 block of 25th Drive SE. A person was found dead inside.

Firefighters respond to a house fire Wednesday morning in the 3400 block of Broadway. (Everett Fire Department)
3 hospitalized in critical condition after Everett house fire

Firefighters rescued two people, one of whom uses a wheelchair, from the burning home in the 3400 block of Broadway.

The Walmart Store on 11400 Highway 99 on March 21, 2023 in in Everett, Washington. The retail giant will close the store on April 21, 2023. (Janice Podsada / The Herald)
Walmart announces Everett store on Highway 99 will close on April 21

The Arkansas-based retail giant said the 20-year-old Walmart location was “underperforming financially.”

Michael Tolley (Northshore School District)
Michael Tolley named new Northshore School District leader

Tolley, interim superintendent since last summer, is expected to inherit the position permanently in July.

Logo for news use, for stories regarding Washington state government — Olympia, the Legislature and state agencies. No caption necessary. 20220331
New forecast show state revenues won’t be quite as robust as expected

Democratic budget writers say they will be cautious but able to fund their priorities. Senate put out a capital budget Monday.

Everett Memorial Stadium and Funko Field on Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2020 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Drive to build new AquaSox ballpark gets $7.4M boost from state

The proposed Senate capital budget contains critical seed money for the city-led project likely to get matched by the House.

Granite Falls
Two suspects charged in motorhome shooting near Granite Falls

Bail was set at $2 million for each of the suspects, Dillon Thomas, 28 and David Koeppen, 37.

Hikers make their way along the Heybrook Ridge Trail on Friday, March 18, 2023, in Index, Washington. (Kayla Dunn / The Herald).
‘It took my breath away’: Lace up your hiking boots because spring is here

Heybrook Ridge Trail packs stunning views and a moss-covered forest in a 3.3 mile round-trip package.

Angelica Montanari and daughter Makena, 1, outside of the Community Health Center of Snohomish County Everett-Central Clinic on Thursday, Feb. 2, 2023. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Providers at Community Health Center of Snohomish County vote to form a union

Providers expressed hope for improving patient care and making their voices heard with management.

Most Read