SEATTLE - A homeless person in a tent has been killed after being hit by a car along I-5 in the University District.
Police say the crash happened about 4:45 a.m. Monday when a driver drifted off the northbound I-5 off-ramp to Northeast 50th Street and drove up onto a grassy, wooded median between the freeway and the off-ramp where homeless people were camping.
Washington State Patrol troopers said the 33-year-old driver ran over the tent in which 19-year-old Walter Burton was sleeping. The driver of the car fled the scene, according to the Washington State Patrol, but was later taken into custody.
Police said the male driver had an odor of alcohol about him and "possibly something else." He is suspected of DUI and was taken to Harborview for a blood draw as well as for treatment of an ankle injury and some lacerations.
Kris Olsen with the Washington State Department of Transportation says a team of employees works a few days a week to try to keep property clear of the homeless camps, but over the past year and a half, it's become an uphill battle.
"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," said Olsen.
The location where the death occurred was just cleared a month ago, and was on rotation for another sweep next month.
DUI attorney Bill Kirk said in such cases, there would not be a full legal defense based purely on the fact that someone should not have been camping there.
A victim would have had to be 100 percent responsible for the cause of the accident in order for the driver to be cleared. In this case, the tent was off the roadway.
“Regardless of whether the tent should be there or not, the allegation is that you have a car that left the roadway and ended up striking an individual. Cars should not be leaving the roadway,” Kirk said.
Seattle Mayor Ed Murray, who's been trying to tackle the homeless problem, stopped by the encampment at 11:45 a.m. to see the area for himself. He told KIRO 7 that while this accident occurred on state property, he may need to ask Seattle voters to raise taxes again to combat homelessness.
WSP: 1 dead after car left I-5 at 50th & hit a homeless tent. Driver investigated for DUI. @rachelkiro7 has traffic updates every 10 min.— Jeff Dubois (@JeffKIRO7) September 12, 2016
“We as a city can no longer expect quick action from the state or federal government. And I am deeply disappointed over that. So we have to ask ourselves, is the only humane thing left to do to raise our own tax dollars, to provide more shelter?” Murray said.
Murray would not say how much he would be asking in increased taxes. He said he would like to begin conversations with the City Council about raising revenue, when it has become clear that state and federal governments will not provide more help.
KIRO 7 spoke to a homeless veteran named Kevin White, who also lives near a busy street.
“It’s kind of a reality check,” he said, upon hearing of Monday morning’s accident.
He said he used to serve with the Army's 82nd Airborne Division. He said he was trained to jump out of airplanes and was sent to Haiti in 2010 after the big earthquake.
“My unit was sent there as a humanitarian mission. We unloaded 100-pound bags of rice,” he said.
Now, White waits to see if help will come to him.
On Monday night, KIRO 7 spoke with several homeless people living in roadside tents about the idea of more tax dollars being used to get them to move.
Some suggested more money be spent on low-income housing. Others liked the idea of more drug rehab programs for those on the street.
After Murray declared a state of emergency last November, the city designated more than $7 million to spend on more emergency shelter beds and outreach services, bringing the city’s annual spending on homelessness to about $50 million.
Murray said that even with more taxes, he would like to see a shift toward spending not on emergency shelter beds, but on getting longer-term solutions.
The crash comes a week after Seattle council members introduced legislation that would change the city’s current practice of encampment sweeps.
The ordinance was drafted by the ACLU and Coalition on Homelessness and would set a precedent for people sleeping outside.
While this would not change the actions of WSDOT on the property where this accident occurred, here are a few proposed conditions for city of Seattle property:
- Outdoor living spaces in locations deemed unsuitable or unsafe are to be cleared with 48 hours’ notice.
- For outdoor living areas that are not deemed unsafe, unsuitable or hazardous, residents will be cleared out only after being offered an adequate and accessible housing option with at least 30 days advance written notice.
- Camping on sidewalks, rights of way, school grounds, private property or highway overpasses, among other unsuitable locations, would not be allowed.
Opponents of the legislation said this would exacerbate existing public safety concerns.
“I agree that the city can do a better job of how we respond to homelessness in Seattle. But the legislation introduced today is not the answer,” Tim Burgess said in a news release.
“This ordinance tips this balance decidedly away from our public health and safety responsibilities. It essentially establishes a new right to camp on public property throughout the city, including in our parks and greenbelts, and on city sidewalks and planting strips.”
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