This is a lengthy article, but we are discussing a complex topic that does not lend itself to brief descriptions. Please bear with me!
Wallingford has experienced its share of homeless encampments and more organized communities of people without permanent shelter. For a long time, a row of RVs in varying states of functionality and decay lined Northlake Way, east of Gasworks Park. The Tiny Home Village known as Nickelsville has quietly existed across from Ivar’s Salmon House for years. Like every neighborhood where people pitch tents or construct makeshift dwellings, these places are controversial and evoke a range of feelings from other people who live nearby or pass through on their way to work or school—not to mention how the residents of the encampments and villages themselves feel.
One encampment that is under increasing scrutiny is on the eastern margin of Wallingford, under the Ship Canal Bridge and just a block from the John Stanford International School (JSIS). The Seattle I-5 corridor, with its large expanses of relatively sheltered State property, has “hosted” several camps in recent years. Many of these have been swept, although it is not clear how ultimately effective these complicated actions have been. In August, the King County Regional Homelessness Authority described the progress being made under the state’s $144 million Right of Way Safety Initiative and noted the removal of three I-5 encampments (at Dearborn, Olive, and the 520 interchange).
Meanwhile the encampment in Wallingford, between NE 40th and NE 42nd, and Pasadena and 5th NE, has grown in size and notoriety, with reported gunshots, fires and other complaints by adjacent neighbors. Alarming anecdotes on the likes of NextDoor about loud music, squatting in nearby vacant houses, and aggressive behaviors by encampment residents caught my attention (after all, I live nearby). The JSIS community certainly has been aware of the situation, and has been active in contacting several governmental authorities. Concerned parents met with State Patrol and WSDOT reps in October, and the PTSA sent a note that is a succinct but detailed summary of the situation and movement toward resolution:
STATUS REPORT ON ENCAMPMENT NEAR JSIS
The encampment located underneath the I-5/Ship canal bridge (aka “42nd and Pasadena encampment”) has been a source of concern to parents and community members due to its close proximity to JSIS and violent activity including the presence of guns, a shooting on September 30, and drug use taking place inside. The encampment is located on State property. Neither the City of Seattle, Seattle Public Schools nor JSIS have any jurisdiction over the area the encampment is located on.
In direct response since September 14th, members of the PTSA and other JSIS parents have been in contact with: Councilmember Alex Pedersen, the Customer Service Bureau, the Find It Fix It app, Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT), and the Seattle Police Department (SPD) non-emergency number, including filing Police Report 2022-246518. They have been in regular communication with SPD, WSDOT, Washington State Patrol (WSP), Councilmember Pedersen, the Mayor’s Office, a Seattle Public Schools School Board Director, and the King County Regional Homelessness Authority (KCRHA). Additionally, members of the PTSA and a small group of parents met with Washington State Patrol (WSP) and WSDOT on Oct 19th. Seattle Police are patrolling the encampment weekly, at the request of Councilmember Pedersen’s office.
At this point, all the key authorities are aware of our community’s concerns and have started work toward encampment resolution. Getting the encampment resolved requires coordination of multiple government agencies. Funds are available to local municipalities to address encampments located on state land, through the Right of Way Safety Initiative. For our county, KCRHA is responsible for executing this initiative; their plan involves providing: social work to build trust, sheltering/housing, and site cleanup, in that order…The 42nd and Pasadena encampment has already been identified for resolution, and an outreach provider has begun the social work stage. However, the bulk of KCRHA resources are currently directed to an encampment in Northgate. SPD will continue its weekly patrol.
Wallyhood contacted both Councilmember Pedersen and the KCRHA over the weekend, and was impressed that we heard back from both—even on the weekend. Alex Pedersen provided an official statement (“Reducing homelessness and increasing safety must be top priorities at all levels of government, and I continue to urge the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) and King County Regional Homelessness Authority (KCRHA) to get the job done with the resources and authority granted to them, so the neighborhoods adjacent to problematic State government properties can be safe again.“) but it is clear that he has been actively and substantively engaged in responding to JSIS community concerns, and has helped to direct city resources to the situation. However—as this encampment is located on state property, there are jurisdictional limits as to what the City can do directly.
As I mentioned, Anne Martens, with the KCRHA, also replied to my weekend inquiry in a very timely way. She acknowledged Wallingford’s concerns but alluded to the pieces that must be in place in advance of the encampment removal:
KCRHA shares the urgency that the school and neighborhood community is feeling. This encampment is on our priority list, and outreach partners have been on-site for several weeks. City services, such as the graffiti abatement and trash pickup, have also responded to this location. Public safety concerns (crime, fires, etc) should be called into 911 immediately and managed by City public safety first responders.
The timeline for resolution is dictated by the availability of appropriate housing resources, and we continue to advocate for removal of exclusionary barriers to housing and more investment in housing options. Housing First is an evidence-based practice with decades of supporting research which shows that housing, and the safety and stability it offers, is a prerequisite to addressing any other mental, behavioral, or substance use issues that a person might have. It’s important to note that Housing First resources come with services attached in order to ensure that healthcare and treatment needs are addressed.
However…Ms. Martens tempered expectations of speedy removal:
At this time, we do not have sufficient available resources to move encampment residents indoors, but the current outreach efforts will speed up that process when emergency housing resources become available.
Nevertheless, we hope that KCRHA and WSDOT will be addressing this site in the next few weeks. I think most of us understand that it is not a simple process, there are many moving parts. WSDOT summarized the process during the meeting with JSIS parents:
There are four actions that allow encampments to be removed from WSDOT right of way:
- The offering of shelter and services to people living there (local jurisdiction & service/outreach providers);
- Secure storage of their belongings (local jurisdiction & service/outreach providers);
- Safety and security for people on site and work crews (local law enforcement & WSP);
- Restoration and cleanup of the property (WSDOT)
WSDOT’s responsibility and expertise is limited to the last action, the clean-up of right of way. As a transportation agency, WSDOT must rely on the expertise and collaboration of local and nonprofit partners who are able to provide the necessary services that are essential to successfully address the needs of people experiencing homelessness.
Lack of low-income housing units is frequently cited as a limiting factor in moving people from encampments. This is seemingly one area where the City could make a meaningful contribution—especially during a declared homelessness emergency. We urge the City’s Office of Housing to take a more active role in finding some units among the 14,000 units it currently funds with local nonprofits. That City-subsidized portfolio had been reporting 500 or so vacant units (4% or so vacancy rate); why not move dozens of housing-ready individuals down on their luck currently residing in Tiny Home Villages and shelters into those housing units, thereby freeing up Tiny Home Village/shelter spots for those sleeping outside unsafely in greenways and other public locations?
In the meantime, we will wait for the multi-jurisdictional effort to safely relocate encampment residents and clean up the site. This will undoubtedly be a great relief to neighbors and JSIS parents, staff, and students.