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WA state plans to remove camps near freeways as Thurston County OKs $5 million agreement

June 19, 2022 Updated Sun., June 19, 2022 at 4:29 p.m.

Martín Bilbao Olympian

OLYMPIA - People camped near highways in Thurston County will be removed and offered housing solutions under a new agreement between the county and Washington state.

Last week, the Board of County Commissioners unanimously approved an interagency agreement with the state Department of Commerce as part of Gov. Jay Inslee’s Rights-of-Way Initiative.

The three-year agreement provides $5 million for the county to spend on shelter beds for affected individuals and hotel stays for those fleeing domestic violence. The funds also will go toward targeted outreach to the camps and administrative costs.

Prior to the vote, Commissioner and Board Chair Carolina Mejia commented on the agreement and thanked staff for devising this proposal with the cities of Olympia and Lacey.

“It’s finally being done,” Mejia said. “It’s great to see the state is finally pitching in and doing their part.”

State officials plan to remove seven homeless encampments on Washington state Department of Transportation rights-of-way in the county, according to county documents. Two out of the top three camps will be prioritized this month.

When asked, Penny Thomas, a spokesperson for the Commerce Department, declined to share where or when the removals will take place. In a statement, she said the state will announce removals only within 72 hours’ notice.

“Together, Commerce, WSDOT and (Washington State Patrol) will move forward as local housing and outreach services are available for residents of an encampment and security is available from local law enforcement or WSP,” Thomas said.

Thurston County declined to share a draft copy of the agreement with The Olympian, citing an objection from the state. Thomas said the agreement has yet to be finalized.

The Olympian has submitted a public records request for the draft agreement.

Keylee Marineau, Thurston County’s Homeless and Affordable Housing Coordinator, called the agreement a first step.

“This is just the beginning of what we hope to be a series of steps towards addressing the governor’s urgency on having folks living on the rights-of-ways relocated,” Marineau said.

The state’s approach

Inslee’s initiative came after the state legislature did not pass Senate Bill 5662 during the 2021-2022 session. The bill aimed to help transition people camped on state rights-of-way to permanent housing solutions.

Rather than drop the issue, Inslee’s office introduced a budget proviso to accomplish the same goal. The proviso sets aside $60 million for capitol purchases to provide housing for those displaced from state rights-of-way and $45 million for housing services, according to county documents.

Thomas said the state has immediate plans to conduct similar camp removals in Pierce, King, Snohomish and Spokane counties as well. But she said the effort is a statewide priority.

Thomas objected to the removals being called “sweeps.” She described the effort as a safety initiative aimed at getting people living on rights-of-ways into safer housing.

“Encampments along rights-of-way pose a clear safety risk to the residents, highway maintenance crews and the general traveling public,” Thomas said. “This is a joint effort with several state agencies and local jurisdictions.”

To remove encampments, Thomas said people living there must be offered shelter, services and storage for their belongings. Additionally, she said the state must ensure the safety and security of people on site and work crews as they clean up the property.

In May, Inslee spoke about his plan to have State Patrol and the Commerce Department remove individuals near roadways as early as mid-June.

He called his plans a “moral obligation” that will “remove this blight along the rights-of-way in the state of Washington,” The Olympian previously reported.

The initiative came after the legislature approved $50 million in new funding to expand options and action to reduce homelessness, Thomas said.

Plans for county funds

Next week, the county board plans to vote on a $3.4 million contract with Interfaith Works to fund 24 shelter beds for three years, according to a draft agenda.

The board also will consider whether to approve a request for proposals for agencies to provide outreach and hotel leasing to unsheltered households affected by the initiative.

At least $300,000 of the $5 million from the state will be set aside for the outreach and hotel leasing efforts, County Manager Ramiro Chavez told the board.

Commissioner Tye Menser asked Marineau how the state and the county decided on setting aside 24 shelter beds.

“The 24 shelter beds are actually what we can offer immediately,” Marineau said. “The number of beds being offered are not adequate to meet the need of the number of people living in the encampments.”

Marineau said Interfaith Works presently had just 24 beds available. The state’s funding will not go toward increasing the stock of beds in the county, which is already strained.

Outreach workers will go to the camps and offer to put people on a priority list for coordinated entry, an emergency housing system that connects people with programs and services based on vulnerability, she said.

However, she added individuals can decline the invitation.

Once at the shelter, Marineau said individuals will be offered support services and meals. In response to a question from Commissioner Gary Edwards, she said the shelter will enforce a behavioral agreement with clients forbidding illicit substance use as is standard practice.

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