SPOKANE, Wash. — For nearly one year, the homeless encampment near I-90 in Spokane has grown to become one of the largest in the state. There's been a lot of finger-pointing on who is responsible for clearing the camp which is on WSDOT property.
This camp is not the only one along freeways and highways in the state, WSDOT has been cleaning up camps on the 'right of ways' for years, but in recent years it's become very expensive for the agency.
In the last three years, WSDOT has expended $6.3 million towards encampment cleanups on state rights of way. This includes new money allocated by Governor Jay Inslee and the state legislature called the 'Right of Way Safety Initiative.'
The state Department of Commerce has $143 million for a variety of services, housing, and addressing homeless encampments on state roadways/property. Spokane County received just over $25 million to address issues and encampments like the one along I-90.
"(It's) just not a good location for those that are unsheltered to be within our operating right away," said Pasco Bakotich, WSDOT's Director of Maintenance Operations.
The program started in the spring and has addressed nine encampments along state highways, including the encampment near I-90 in Spokane.
"Our department of transportation has worked as hard as they can, but they didn't have the person power to do it. The legislature has now put in $300 million to allow them to do it, and that is why this is being successful," said Inslee.
Bakotich has been with WSDOT for 36 years, but for the last seven years he's been in maintenance and operations.
"But in that seven years, we are seeing more and more individuals finding themselves unsheltered," Bakotich said.
Highways and freeways are popular places for the un-housed to set up shelter because they are often hidden behind vegetation or covered from the elements. For WSDOT, this means they are constantly having to clean-up camps and make the less desirable for people to re-occupy. "To restore them to their original, their original intent, which is the roadside of a traveling highway," Bakotich said.
You can imagine, cleaning up a camp is as expensive, as it is hazardous. In 2014, the agency only spent under $500,000 statewide, and in 2022, WSDOT spent more than $2.5 million and that number will likely grow even higher before the end of the year.
WSDOT East region said they spend roughly $120,000 per year on average, but even that figure will change significantly because the agency is spending $30,000 per week on security alone at the encampment off of I-90.
Small businesses are also spending thousands of dollars because of issues connected to the I-90 encampment. Liberty Tire and Auto Service, owner Steve Liberty estimates he's lost at least $16,000.
"We had people you know, living in our building, they broke into our building, tore a door off, then burn a car down, that was in our parking lot," he said.
The encampment is just feet away from his business, over time the camp has inched closer and closer, scaring away customers.
"There's people that don't want to come down into this neighborhood. They don't want to leave their cars. You know what, you can't blame them," Liberty said.
Liberty is hopeful the millions being spent will one day move the camp away from his business, but know just clearing the camp won't solve the root of the crisis.
"Just cleaning up this shelter is going to do nothing, they're just going to move somewhere else. I mean, I don't want this shelter to be just cleaned up. Because all they're gonna do is just moved to another area," Liberty said.
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