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Seattle's violent Ship Canal Bridge encampment has plagued nearby residents for years

FILE - Tents and belongings at the Ship Canal Bridge encampment. (KOMO News)
FILE - Tents and belongings at the Ship Canal Bridge encampment. (KOMO News)
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The homeless encampment under the Ship Canal Bridge along I-5 in Seattle has been plaguing nearby residents for years. Following recent violence and safety concerns at the encampment, people are demanding city and state leaders take action to remove it.

The encampment borders both sides of the I-5 express lanes — Wallingford on one side and the University District on the other. It is referred to as the Pasadena Encampment by regional partners because one of the nearby cross-streets is Pasadena Place Northeast. Officials told KOMO News they believe about 20-30 people are living unsheltered at the site as of February 2023.

While complaints about the illegal encampment have increased over the last few months, they are not new, nor is the City and State's slow response to the problem.

Issues at the camp aren't new

KOMO News started reporting on issues with the Ship Canal Bridge encampment four years ago. In November 2018, there was a fire at the camp that threatened homes whose occupants were gone for the holidays.

Even then, residents KOMO News talked to said they've had enough of the camp and the city's "lack of response" to their complaints.

“There’s really no peace to be had in our neighborhood anymore,” said Linda Lowe, who wasn't home when that fire ignited and burned two tents and vegetation behind her Wallingford home. She told KOMO News in 2018 that the camp had existed on-and-off for years and each time the city cleared the camp, it reassembled with new people.

Who owns the property?

The encampment sits on right-of-way property owned by the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT). A state initiative pushed by Gov. Jay Inslee began last year to remove encampments along state property and house those who are living there. The Ship Canal Bridge encampment falls under that program, but so far, the camp has not been removed.

The WSDOT called the Ship Canal Bridge encampment a "complex issue" that they are working to address.

The state agency partners with the King County Regional Homelessness Authority (KCRHA) to handle outreach with the residents and work on getting them services, including housing. However, there have been questions raised about available housing in the county and how the authority is going about getting residents into those vacancies.

Increasing concerns

Wallingford and University District residents started sounding off about the encampment last fall when there became increasing trash and break-ins reported around the camp. Neighbors also began noticing the camp growing in size.

Residents reported safety concerns, like people running across I-5, and needles left on the ground. One person KOMO News spoke to, who manages properties nearby, said his tenants constantly complained about the growing garbage issue.

“’[There’s] garbage piled taller than me, you need to do something,’” Jianxin Huang said of their complaints in September 2022. “What can we do? We’ve called the city, we’ve called, nothing they can do.”

RELATED: Safety concerns grow over encampment along I-5 express lanes in Seattle

Recent violence

Concerns have continued to grow since what appears to be a recent uptick in violence associated with the encampment. In late September, a double shooting at the encampment left two men injured, and neighbors worried about their safety.

In January of this year, a man was shot and killed near the encampment. Police said they found a 45-year-old man dead from a gunshot wound under the interstate in what police described as a “dwelling.”

There have also been several fires reported at the encampment. On Feb. 9, a massive fire erupted at the camp believed to have been started by fireworks. A man at the camp was treated for burns and taken to the hospital.

RELATED: Fire breaks out at violent encampment under Seattle's Ship Canal Bridge

KOMO News has repeatedly asked WSDOT and Seattle leaders what's being done to address the violent encampment. Following the double shooting in September, WSDOT said in a statement that plans were still being made for how to deal with the encampment.

WSDOT is committed to this critical safety initiative. Those directly partnering with us on the state’s Right of Way Safety Initiative and outreach in Seattle/King County include the state Department of Commerce, the Washington State Patrol, the King County Regional Homelessness Authority, Reach, Just Care, and the city of Seattle.
Our partner the King County Regional Homelessness Authority is actively working to connect with people living at this location and others along the state right of way. Their assessments allow us to objectively prioritize and determine the best resolution for each encampment and, most importantly, what is needed to support the people who live there.

The WSDOT has told KOMO News their timeline for addressing the encampment depends on housing availability, but that KCRHA outreach workers have been speaking to those who live there.

Parents are fed up

The Ship Canal Bridge encampment is just a neighborhood block away from John Stanford International Elementary and parents have said they feel increasingly frustrated with the lack of action and are worried about their children's safety.

Those parents expressed their outrage to the KCRHA during the agency's implementation board meeting on Feb. 8.

You are failing in your jobs," said Don Mackenzie, a parent who lives near the encampment.

"You are failing my neighborhood. You have shown disregard and contempt about our concerns for kids being exposed [to] needles and being chased out of their after-school programs," continued Mackenzie. "Why would anyone support further spending on homelessness when you can’t do anything useful with the money you already receive?"

RELATED: Seattle parents question homelessness authority's action on encampments

Funding for homelessness

The KCRHA recently unveiled its plan to tackle the homeless crisis and has been taking public comment on the issue. The proposal would spend nearly $12 billion to address homelessness over the next five years.

The KCRHA's 133-page draft plan asks for $8.4 billion in one-time capital costs over five years and up to $3.4 billion in annual operating costs. Split over five years, the annual cost of the plan would be approximately $2.36 billion, roughly 10 times more than the KCRHA's 2023 budget of $253 million.

Seattle residents have questioned the amount of funding, given what they see as a lack of action with current resources.

“If the authority cannot resolve this encampment with any urgency given $50 million, how can you expect the public to support you with $13 billion? All I hear really is about housing, but it’s so much more than just housing and I think that’s pretty obvious to anyone who goes down there," said parent Emily Houston. "There have been three shootings and [the Ship Canal Bridge encampment] is still there. It should have been done yesterday.”

Pressing Seattle City Council

A group of parents with children who attend the John Stanford International Elementary went to Seattle's City Council on Feb. 14 to ask for immediate action on the encampment.

“I’ve seen the encampment double or triple in size in the last year and it’s become a ticking time bomb. It’s clear that the encampments are becoming more and more dangerous," parent Eli Hosher told the council.

Parents' concerns reached a boiling point Feb. 14 after the WSDOT sent a letter to the Stanford school explaining what the agency was doing to address the encampment. In that same letter, WSDOT regional administrator Brian Nielsen said the Washington State Patrol (WSP) has determined the camp did not pose an "imminent threat to public safety." Read the full letter here.

“You’d have to be insane, honestly to make a statement like that at this point given all that has taken place in these encampments," Hosher said.

City and state leadership response

Following the fatal shooting in January, Seattle City Councilmember Alex Pedersen, who represents District 4, Seattle's Northeast neighborhoods, demanded action on the encampment.

"This encampment has been the location of violent events, repeated fires it's time for the state government to address it," said Pedersen.

Gov. Jay Inslee said on Feb. 14 he wants to end the homeless encampment under the Ship Canal Bridge "as soon as humanly possible."

"We need action there, it's unacceptable to have a housing encampment under I-5 and the Ship Canal Bridge," Inslee said. "We want to end the encampment as soon as humanly possible. The neighbors deserve that and I think we have a reasonable plan to get that job done."

RELATED: Inslee wants to clean up Ship Canal Bridge encampment 'as soon as humanly possible'

Why can't encampment residents get housing?

The WSDOT maintains that finding the residents at the encampment adequate housing is one of the main priorities when removing an encampment.

Parents were incensed when they learned that the WSDOT was not planning to immediately move residents indoors but instead increase daily outreach workers to connect residents with services. They learned of the plan in a letter from Brian Nielsen, WSDOT's Northwest Region administrator.

Part of Nielsen's letter stated:

"Some have asked why emergency/congregate shelter isn’t enough. What we know from doing this work is that if the shelter option isn’t a good match, for example, if the environment aggravates mental health issues, or if the facility refuses to allow partners or pets, then people may hold out for a different option that meets their needs. If that happens, then people remain outdoors, creating the same safety concerns all over again either in the same neighborhood or spread out to a new neighborhood where outreach workers may not be able to find them. That isn’t a sustainable solution and it’s not what we are required to provide. The housing offered must be a “meaningful improvement over the individual’s current living situation” and “well-matched to an individual’s assessed needs.” These legislative requirements are meant to ensure that the solution is sustainable and lasting. This approach is proving successful – of the 287 people transitioned from other sites that have been the focus of the state’s right-of-way initiative, 93% remain housed."

Councilmember Pedersen has insisted there is space available now.

"I think the response from the responsible agencies is insufficient. To clean up trash around the area is not sufficient. We need to bring people inside there is available shelter it does not have to be the high-end version of permanent supportive housing in every case...our office of housing and some nonprofits have some vacancies available we need to have better coordination there is space for people. It’s not a lot but enough for the 20 people who are overnight at this encampment," Pedersen said.

KOMO News has reached out to the Seattle Office of Housing and the KCHRA to determine vacancy rates and if housing is available now why it's not being offered to those residents.

The KCRHA is leading the outreach effort onsite to connect individuals with services and housing and so far no indication that any individuals have been moved indoors.

KOMO News asked Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell on Feb. 15 about the encampment and available shelter beds.

“We have to act with a sense of urgency, we have to shelter people, some are short term some are long term but living in a tent with no water or heat is unacceptable," Harrell said.

When asked what the mayor would say to John Stanford International school parents who ask why can’t the residents be moved into shelter now if space is available, Harrell said, “Number one, they should keep advocating that their voices are heard, we hear them and respond, I think there is some validity behind what they are saying, they want to see action."

Cleanup begins, but not removal

After weeks of contention between parents and city, state leaders, crews began cleaning up the Ship Canal Bridge encampment on Feb. 16.

While the encampment is not being removed, a WSDOT spokesperson said contractor crews picked up garbage, repaired fences, cleaned up needles and more at the encampment.

KOMO News attended the KCRHA's governing committee meeting on Feb. 16 where the agency's CEO, Marc Dones, gave an update on their plans to address encampments in Seattle.

"We are also significantly concerned about the safety of residents in the community and residents in the encampments," Dones said.

Dones said the Ship Canal Bridge encampment is one of three "priority" encampments for the authority to address. The authority hopes to have more permanent housing available in the next week, but it's still unclear when or if residents at the Ship Canal Bridge encampment will be moved.

In a media availability Feb. 16, Gov. Jay Inslee reiterated when asked about the Ship Canal Bridge encampment that it is "unacceptable" and "needs to end."

"But the best way to make sure it is a long-term solution, is to get them [the homeless residents] into a place that's private and secure," said Inslee, who added that officials see better results when they place people in private housing versus congregate settings like shelters.

Inslee said dealing with the Ship Canal Bridge encampment is a coordinated response and they are working to clean up the area and provide more security around the camp.

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"We're trying to do everything we can as fast as we possibly can," Inslee said.

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