As Washington’s homeless population grows and cities continue to clear encampments without enough available shelter beds, officials say more people have been moving onto state property where they have largely been able to stay undisturbed. Until now.
In 2022, the state began its Right of Way Safety Initiative, which closes encampments in areas around highways by providing shelter or housing to the estimated thousands of people living there. The Washington State Department of Transportation said people living near highways and onramps has resulted in accidents and deaths, though it hasn’t shown evidence of these incidents.
This is a shift by the state toward a more hands-on approach to homelessness response, which until this program, had mostly been left to cities and counties.
State officials say this initiative is different from other encampment removals around the state because they are providing people shelter and housing that matches people’s needs, thereby ending the cycle of displacement.
An estimated 160,000 people were experiencing homelessness statewide in January 2023, up from about 140,000 five years ago according to the state Department of Commerce.
Since the project began last summer, 688 people have been brought inside, with 91% of those people still there, according to the Department of Commerce.
Most of those people are staying in shelter capacity that was added by the initiative, which allocated about half of its $143 million in initial funding on new shelter beds.
While leaders of the initiative say this shelter expansion has been critical to successes so far, current budget proposals in the state Legislature are threatening to limit funding to purchase more shelter and housing through the initiative.
But the five counties involved have had varying levels of success at bringing people inside. Some have brought inside less than half of people staying in encampments — a result of political disagreements, initiative leaders said.
They say that shows funding for shelter and housing won’t get the job done alone. It will take buy-in as well.
“What we know works”
When staff from the Right of Way Safety Initiative first started visiting The Jungle in summer 2022, Phuong Duong and Marie Dawson initially ignored them.
In their six years at The Jungle, an infamous Seattle homeless encampment located under the I-5 bridge near Dearborn Street, outreach workers had come and put them on waitlists for shelter beds that never materialized. In the meantime, countless fires and gunshots erupted around them, they said, and 10 of their friends died of overdose.
“But they kept coming and they kept coming and they kept coming,” Dawson said. After months of initiative outreach workers visiting the encampment every day, offering a hotel room instead of a bed in a large, crowded shelter which had been offered in the past, Dawson said, “I was like ‘OK, well come get me.’”
In August, Duong and Dawson moved into hotel rooms through the state’s initiative. At the end of March, they moved into their own apartment.
“We’re coming back to normal life again,” Dawson said.
The initiative does “what we know works,” said Marc Dones, CEO of the King County Regional Homelessness Authority, which is working with the state on the project.
Dones said the keys have been extended outreach to build trusting relationships and funding to add more high-quality, noncongregate shelter options to offer people.
King County has closed eight right of way encampments, bringing inside 89% of the people living there — 292 people total. The majority of them have gone into hotel-based shelters paid for by the initiative.
The other four counties involved in the initiative — Pierce, Snohomish, Thurston and Spokane — have combined to close six encampments and bring inside 396 people. Some encampments, which staff started working on last year, are still open.
The main reason King County leads in the initiative is that it was able to open up new shelter options earlier, creating the capacity to bring people inside.
Just as the Right of Way Safety Initiative was starting last summer, hotels that had been used for JustCARE, a project to bring people inside from the large encampments that had sprung up in downtown Seattle and nearby neighborhoods during the pandemic, were opening up. The state’s initiative quickly stepped in to pay for the leases that were about to expire.
Not so fast
By comparison, Thurston County has been in a “holding pattern” as it waits for beds to become available through the initiative. The county began working on five right of way encampments, but has been able to bring in fewer than one-third of the people there — 37 people so far.
Tom Webster, manager of Thurston County’s Office of Housing & Homeless Prevention, said about 150 beds split between hotel rooms and tiny homes have been purchased through the initiative, but staff have not been able to move people into them as they wait for contracts and building improvements to finalize.
Statewide, the initiative has funded the acquisition of 424 units of shelter so far but only about a quarter of that is available for use as contracts are still being finalized and buildings need to be remodeled or remediated. The state said it plans to convert a majority of those units into permanent supportive housing, though officials say they don’t know when or what it would take to do so.
In the meantime, the state has also been leasing rooms, which can be available more immediately, but there’s “not a lot of extra leasing opportunities out there,” said Tedd Kelleher, housing policy director at the Department of Commerce.
And current budget proposals by the state Legislature limit the initiative’s ability to purchase or build more shelter or housing in the future.
Gov. Jay Inslee’s proposed budget included $150 million in operating funds and $60 million in capital funds for the Right of Way Safety Initiative over the next two years. The state House and Senate both proposed budgets that allocate most or all of those operating costs but include no capital funding.
“Capital financing is critical to continue at the scale that we’ve been at so far,” Kelleher said.
Sen. Patty Kuderer, chair of the state Senate Housing Committee, said in an emailed statement that the initiative has done “impressive work” connecting people with housing, and that there is funding dedicated for housing in the proposed budgets that’s not specifically earmarked for this initiative.
“Money isn’t going to solve the problem” in Spokane
What’s happened in Spokane has taught officials that funding for more shelter and housing alone isn’t going to solve homelessness. It’ll take political alignment as well.
From the end of 2021 to summer 2022, Spokane’s Camp Hope grew to more than 700 inhabitants by some counts, becoming the state’s largest homeless encampment. Around then, the state’s initiative began work to remove that encampment but immediately started clashing with local officials in repeated public battles.
State officials and the city of Spokane disagreed on what types of housing to add, where to site them, and how quickly to close Camp Hope.
State officials and local nonprofits pushed for tiny homes and were operating under the assumption that finding adequate housing for everyone in Camp Hope would take significant time.
Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward advocated for expanding capacity at a large congregate shelter that currently houses 250 people, but which she said could be expanded to more than 400 people. And she pushed for Camp Hope to be closed as soon as possible, which she had been under increasing pressure from residents and businesses to do.
“There’s been no sense of urgency, which is what I understand was the whole intent of this initiative, to rapidly get people out of encampments under a roof,” Woodward said.
But state officials disagree about the timeline.
“We would have been successful faster if everybody had been on board,” said Roger Millar, secretary of the Department of Transportation, which has been working on the initiative.
The initiative eventually funded 376 beds of mostly individual shelter and housing in Spokane, including some funding for the city’s congregate shelter, but many of those were only agreed on after months of discussion between the state and city of Spokane began, and less than half of those beds are currently available because they haven’t been set up yet.
“Spokane has a governance problem, where it’s difficult to agree on housing models and to site them where money isn’t going to solve the problem,” said Kelleher.
Over the past six months, the population of Camp Hope has shrunk to around 55. However, nonprofits working on the initiative there say that as of the end of March, they only know of 157 people who moved into shelter or housing, a fraction of the people who used to live there.
They say the rest left the camp possibly as a result of the weather or because police and city staff were handing out flyers that said the camp would be closed. And they say they don’t know where people went, running counter to the initiative’s claims that it avoids displacing people by housing them.