Transportation departments are spending at least $1.1 million this year on fences to keep homeless people separated from Seattle highways.
It’s a one-off project, but the state expects to install more barriers in future years, as specific crises appear.
“It’s a statewide issue,” said Travis Phelps, a spokesman for the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT). “We’re going to be collaborating with cities and other jurisdictions, to make sure that folks who are experiencing homelessness and other issues are not camping underneath highways and other spots, and putting themselves at risk.”
Seattle is blocking off nearly two miles in Sodo under its Spokane Street Viaduct, site of two deaths and two serious RV fires this year.
Fencing crews have cordoned off nearly all the space below, from the Duwamish River to First Avenue South. The extra-strength fence stands 10-foot-4, with small mesh that’s hard for climbers to grab. A supplemental shipment of thin blades was discreetly cinched along the top, resembling common bird spikes that repel crows and gulls.
City staff say they’re averting the sort of incident that occurred in Atlanta, where a span of Interstate 85 collapsed in a March fire.
Atlanta police arrested a homeless man who faces arson charges for allegedly igniting a chair, reported The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Flames spread to a cache of plastic conduit the Georgia Department of Transportation stored beneath the freeway.
Blocks of lightweight, temporary chain-link fence surround other medians of lower Spokane Street, all the way to I-5. Commuters have begun parking again inside that fence, a use the city supports.
In January, a man was found dead inside a burned RV, followed by another RV fire April 6 and a sweep below upper Spokane Street. Squatters returned. Then in August, a 31-year-old man was shot to death — prompting the city to close a larger area.
Other goals include preventing thefts, biohazards and car-pedestrian crashes.
The WSDOT fenced a cloverleaf ramp from I-90 to Rainier Avenue South, where camp dwellers crossed traffic and wandered into a busway.
Another new fence, below the Jose Rizal Bridge, surrounds land where contractor supplies are stored for East Link light-rail construction.
New fences downtown near James Street are meant to deter people from walking across I-5 entrance and exit lanes.
Additional fencing will be installed under I-5 at the Columbian Way exit, near an area known as The Jungle, where WSDOT’s sand and vehicles will be stored out of the rain.
Seattle is adding fencing at Magnolia Bridge abutments, where the city removed 26 propane tanks in April.
WSDOT doesn’t fear an Atlanta-type fire, Phelps said. For instance, temperatures near 2,000 degrees are required for at least 15 minutes, to destroy a concrete tunnel.
“We’re pretty mindful about what we put under I-5,” Phelps said.
Seattle Fire Department Lt. Harold Webb said winter camping leads people to light fires to stay warm and those can become brush fires. “In the dry summer months, fires can quickly spread to nearby residential communities,” he said.
Like other West Coast cities, Seattle declared a homelessness emergency two years ago, but has yet to show progress.
Seattle’s fences are funded through a quarterly City Council budget amendment, for $570,000. This money was shifted from the general fund, so other transportation projects aren’t reduced to pay for fencing, said Mafara Hobson, Seattle Department of Transportation spokeswoman.
WSDOT is spending $527,000 approved by state lawmakers. Its program is less drastic than a three-mile, $1 million razor-wire fence along Beacon Hill that was once considered by the 2016 Legislature.
Employees at Spokane Street warehouses say they notice a decline in drug use, fire, panhandling and debris.
“It’s noticeably better than it was, before the temporary fencing,” said Bill Kaczmarek, owner of Seattle Textile Co. Outside his front door is a city-sanctioned lot, home to 11 RVs this week, that’s calmer than the previous unregulated camps along Spokane Street and freight-train tracks, he said.
Neighbors say some campers from Spokane Street merely moved several blocks. Tents are sprouting this fall on the east bank of the Duwamish River.
Over at I-5, four dwellings sit under partial cover, where an offramp partly overhangs Airport Way South. A young man named Sonny, trimming his fingernails under a red tarp in the rain Tuesday, said he was uprooted during the September camping enforcement action at Spokane Street.
The city says 46 people wound up in better housing, including new enhanced shelters recently opened. Some people refuse offers, for various reasons.
“There definitely wasn’t enough shelter for the number of people moved,” said Daniel Malone, executive director of the Downtown Emergency Service Center.
Fencing is helpful when it shields people from traffic or dangerous sites, he said. But fences can merely shift people or problems somewhere else, he said.
“You wouldn’t need all the fences, the hygiene centers and the rest areas if everybody had a place to live,” Malone said.
Yet he also senses a renewed political and citizen effort to find lasting solutions.