WSDOT, Everett mayor at odds over solution to homelessness crisis

The Washington State Department of Transportation and the Mayor of Everett are in a war of words, with both parties using public letters over how best to address the homeless crisis.

The controversy is centered around Washington’s ‘Right of Way Safety Initiative.’ Earlier this year, the state legislature allocated $300 million to the initiative, proposing the money be used to clean up encampments along state rights of way while offering housing assistance to those living in the encampments.

In Everett, WSDOT says they are currently performing three roadside cleanups. But Everett mayor Cassie Franklin is urging the transportation department to discontinue placement efforts immediately.

She posted a public letter on social media, writing in part, “Yesterday I learned that the Washington State Department of Transportation- as part of Washington’s Right of Way Safety Initiative, and in partnership with a local nonprofit service provider- is placing a large number of the unsheltered population, many of which reside outside the city of Everett, in motels located throughout Everett. This is an unacceptable burden for our city to bear.”

Franklin previously worked at an Everett nonprofit specializing in homeless outreach before beginning her tenure in local government. But that didn’t stop dozens of social media users from criticizing her post. One person commented on Twitter, ‘So you don’t want to solve homelessness and support people living in tents by the freeway. Got it.’

The biggest critic, perhaps, was WSDOT, who called her letter patently false and offensive. The state agency, in collaboration with the Washington State Patrol and Washington Department of Commerce, responded to the mayor’s letter with a public letter as well. Writing in part, “We are deeply frustrated that the city and county did not reach out to have a conversation with our departments prior to publishing and publicly sharing false secondhand information across social media platforms. You attempted to shame our agencies … We request a public retraction of those statements and an apology. Such accusations undermine our collective ability to do the work the public demands and unhoused individuals need.”

WSDOT also wrote that from the three encampment cleanups underway, only three people had been placed in an Everett shelter, not the ‘large numbers’ that the mayor alleges.

KIRO 7 reached out to both WSDOT and the mayor’s office. Both declined to speak on camera, stating that the letters spoke for themselves.

However, the mayor’s office did share with KIRO 7 their latest response to the matter, with Franklin writing, “I will not be issuing a public retraction or apology for my statements, and I reiterate my request to immediately cease the placement of unsheltered individuals in Everett motels until further discussion can take place. I have directed my Executive Assistant to attempt to schedule that meeting.”

The executive director of the Snohomish County Housing Authority tells KIRO 7 he was aware of the situation but did not feel he was the best source to discuss the city’s housing situation. He did note that shelters in the area do not have enough capacity and haven’t for years, which is likely the burden the mayor was referring to.

Since the letters were published, some community members have shared concerns over whether the initiative prioritizes those in encampments over other unhoused Everett residents, as many area shelters have waitlists. WSDOT has not responded to this concern. However, Marc Dones with the King County Regional Housing Authority says it’s “not how the program is designed. KCRHA used the right of way funding to establish 80 units of emergency housing that are expressly tied to our efforts to resolve encampments in state rights of way. So there’s not priority for people set at existing shelters, but rather we expanded capacity to take on this important work.”