I-5 camp where car killed man last year still hazard for homeless, drivers

By: Ashli Blow, KIRO 7 News Digital Producer

Updated:

The North Seattle greenbelt where a car veered off Interstate 5 and crashed into a homeless man’s tent nearly a year ago continues to attract camps, creating a dangerous setting for both homeless people and drivers.

As debris rolled down the side of the hill and onto the interstate’s shoulder, the city’s navigation team -- a crew that specializes in relocating homeless -- checked on 14 people living along the roadway in the University District. The team issued notices for people to leave last week, but only three people accepted the city’s offers as of Wednesday, the same day that KIRO 7 asked the city how crew were ensuring safety there.

The other 11 refused services, and were told they’d have to go within a few days per city policy. Tarps and tents remained on Thursday from the campsite, which officials say created hazardous conditions.

“We identify areas by hazard and if the people living there are too close to the side of the highway,” said Meg Olberding, the Seattle director of external affairs, Human Services Department.

“For the public, if someone fell [from the camp], walking back and forth, that could create major accidents. Navigation team gets to know people in the [camps], makes offers of service, make offers of a safer location, like coming into a sanction encampment.”


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Seattle sanctions six homeless camps in the city, and the navigation team also offers shelters when posting notices.

The last time the team cleared this camp was a few weeks ago, Aug. 24, but people came back.

Leaders have tried -- and failed -- to keep the area between Exit 169 and Exit 170 clear for almost three years, and within that time a homeless man was killed.

Walter L. Burton, a registered sex offender, was asleep in his tent under a tree when a driver crashed into him. Burton, 19, lay wrapped in his tent as the driver ran from the early-morning wreck, according to probably caused documents.

Walter L. Burton, a registered sex offender, was asleep in his tent under a tree when a driver crashed into him.
© 2017 Cox Media Group.

Former Mayor Ed Murray toured the site shortly after Burton’s death, and a vigil was held that night. Murray also wanted another property tax increase to address homeless problems after the case. Read about where Murray's office stood with homeless efforts before he resigned here.

Police eventually arrested Oscar Gutierrez-de Jesus, who they said had glossy eyes and smelled of alcohol. He was sentenced this March for vehicular homicide by DUI.

Before the 2016 crash, Washington Department of Transportation spokeswoman Kris Olsen told KIRO 7 News that crews were checking the area every few days, but struggled to keep it clear.

"We regularly go through and clean up the encampments after providing the folks who are there notice, but as we've all seen, the encampments often come back," Olsen told KIRO 7 last September

But even with the new navigation team -- involving highly-trained officers and outreach workers – will visit the camp on Wednesday for outreach and to assess the site’s conditions. But there is no way to check up regularly on the city’s 400 camps, according to Olberding.

On the greenbelt between exit 169 and exit 170, debris is left from the camp.

“There’s not a whole lot to prevent people from coming back,” Olberding said. “There was a danger under the Spokane Street bridge, there were enough RV fires, a big hazard [to the bridge], and we can’t have that. We fenced it off.”

In that incident, two RVs parked under the Spokane Street Bridge, also called the West Seattle low-level bridge, went up in flames on an April morning. A man tried to start the engine to keep warm when the engine failed and caught fire.

Olberding could not advise if areas like the greenbelt where Burton died would eventually be fenced off for safety reasons. She did tell KIRO 7 that the navigation team has addressed at least 36 hazardous camps over the past seven months, though it’s not clear how many of those camps quickly returned. Removal information is posted by date here.


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