Seattle begins fencing off highways from the homeless

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.

Light weight, temporary chain-link fence is also surrounding 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.

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.

Like other West Coast cities, Seattle declared a homelessness emergency two years ago, but has yet to show progress.

An estimated 11,600 people across King County are homeless. Taxpayers and donors this year are spending $196 million for shelters, permanent housing and other services.

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.

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