Q: Is the state Department of Transportation aware of a homeless encampment that recently appeared near the South 19th Street interchange with state Route 16 in Tacoma, and has any outreach been attempted? — Jill S., Tacoma
A: Now dear reader, before you spit out your coffee and accuse us of losing sight of our mission, we can assure you the answer to Jill’s question is in fact traffic-related.
We will get to that in a minute.
First, though, let Jill have her say.
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“I have driven Highway 16 for more than … let’s just say a lot of years,” she wrote to Traffic Q&A headquarters recently. “I just noticed a series of tents, tarps and debris on the side of westbound Highway 16, right past the South 19th Street exit, which was a surprise to me.”
“I am extremely concerned and sympathetic about our growing homeless population. Is the DOT, or other officials, aware and has any outreach been attempted?”
We cajoled the beat-up Honda Accord into action last week with the promise of a half tank of premium gasoline and went to have a look for ourselves.
Jill is right. We spied a tent, a tarp and other evidence of a homeless camp on the steep slope fronting state Route 16 right at the South 19th Street exit.
We also spotted another tent in the trees surrounding the retention pond on the other side of the highway there.
As soon as we got back to the office, we inquired of Claudia Bingham Baker of the Transportation Department’s Olympic Region, which includes Pierce County.
Bingham Baker did not paint a pretty picture.
“Yes, hundreds of illegal encampments exist on WSDOT right of way,” she said. “Over half of them are in the greater Seattle area, and we are aware of numerous such encampments in Tacoma as well.”
Bingham Baker said she did not know whether anyone had tried to contact the residents of the encampment that has Jill worried.
“Since WSDOT is not a social service agency, we rely on local jurisdictions to provide that outreach,” she said. “When it comes to cleaning encampments, WSDOT partners with homeless service providers, local law enforcement and others to ensure the process is done humanely, safely and properly.”
And, it seems, there is a lot of cleaning up to be done.
“In 2015, WSDOT spent $650,000 statewide for homeless camp removals and cleanups,” Bingham Baker said. “Between July and November 2016, WSDOT spent more than $799,000 cleaning up homeless encampments.”
And that’s where it has an effect on traffic, as Bingham Baker pointed out:
“This difficult societal problem compromises WSDOT’s ability to maintain the transportation infrastructure,” she said. “While sympathetic to the encampment occupants, WSDOT crews must make regular trips to conduct required inspections and do maintenance and construction activities.
“These inspections are needed to ensure the safety of bridges and roadways, and regular access is important. During emergency repairs, immediate access to sites is critical.”
What’s more, the state of the encampments is often deplorable, she said.
“Beyond the access issues, the encampments also pose safety challenges to the homeless individuals and to our signal, maintenance and bridge crews, exposing them to debris, biological hazards, damage to structures and rotting garbage,” she said.
Upshot: The tentacles of homelessness reach into all areas of our society, even our roads.