Joseph O’Sullivan / The Seattle Times
OLYMPIA — As she drives from North Seattle into the center of town, Seattle City Councilmember Debora Juarez sometimes counts the homeless encampments.
“Sometimes I can count up to 16 encampments between North Seattle and downtown Seattle,” Juarez said in a news conference Thursday with Gov. Jay Inslee.
Held remotely, the news conference by Juarez, Inslee, King County Executive Dow Constantine, Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell and other elected officials cheered the advance of a bill at the state Legislature to create an office to address homeless encampments around state-owned rights of way, such as highways.
Senate Bill 5662 would create the Office of Intergovernmental Coordination on Public Right-of-Way Homeless Encampments, for work on land owned by the Washington State Department of Transportation. It would be housed within the state Department of Social and Health Services.
The bill — requested by Inslee and sponsored by Sen. Patty Kuderer, D-Bellevue — got its first committee vote Wednesday. It now awaits a hearing in a Senate Ways and Means Committee. If approved there, it would go to a vote of the full state Senate, and then on to the House.
Between 2015 and September 2021, WSDOT documented 871 homeless encampments on its properties in Seattle. The counts — which tally sites observed at any time during that date range — also documented 251 sites in Snohomish County, 195 in Clark County, 172 in Pierce County and 102 in Spokane County.
The proposal comes as elected officials continue their yearslong struggle to try to reduce homelessness, with the state pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into projects in recent years.
In his proposed supplemental budget for this year’s 60-day legislative session, Inslee has proposed spending $815 million to tackle homelessness, including for more transitional and permanent housing. House and Senate lawmakers are expected to release their own budget proposals this month.
“As more units are built, it begs the question,” Inslee said, “how do we work with local governments to get people into them in a compassionate, meaningful and coordinated manner?”
If approved by the Legislature, the office would coordinate efforts to reduce the number of people in unsanctioned homeless encampments on rights of way owned by the state Department of Transportation.
In the news conference, Harrell lauded the bill, saying, “I am ecstatic about our ability to partner with the state.”
The bill would help clear up questions of jurisdiction that can arise when local officials wrestle with problems on state-owned lands.
Juarez recalled jurisdiction issues that city officials had with the Seattle homeless encampment known as The Jungle. That situation created concern about state workers going into the encampment with a local police escort, Juarez said.
“We had fires, we had sex trafficking going on, we had fatalities,” she said, and there were concerns that WSDOT workers couldn’t get a city police escort on the state-owned land.