SEATTLE (AP) — A car went off a freeway ramp in Seattle on Monday morning, killing a 19-year-old man inside a tent at small homeless encampment, the Washington State Patrol said.
Hours after the crash, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray visited the scene along Interstate 5 and said the incident underscored the need to find safe shelter for hundreds who are living on the streets, the Seattle Times reported.
"I'm saddened by the loss of life at a homeless encampment near the U District," Murray said on social media Monday. "Seattle alone can't solve this crisis but we must try."
A driver left the off-ramp at the city's University District early Monday morning, went up a small hill in a grassy median between I-5 and the Northeast 50th Street exit and struck the tent and a tree, state Patrol Trooper Rick Johnson said. The man killed was identified Monday afternoon as Walter Burton, according to the state patrol. The driver, identified as 33-year-old Oscar Gutierrez de Jesus of Seattle, fled the scene but was arrested soon after for investigation of vehicular homicide.
The tent pitched in the grassy median along I-5 is among hundreds of unauthorized camps that have popped up on vacant land, along freeways and in neighborhoods throughout Seattle. The tents are familiar sights to drivers along I-5 in Seattle.
Like many cities, Seattle has been wrestling with how to deal with growing numbers of homeless people. A one-night census of homeless in January revealed a 19 percent spike in Seattle, the third annual increase in as many years. Last fall, Murray proclaimed a state of emergency and called on state and federal officials for support.
The city has also been wrestling with how to clean up unauthorized encampments, as it considers public safety concerns as well as how best to serve those living in the outside spaces.
The encampment where Monday's crash happened is on state transportation land. It's one of the more well-known areas where tents are pitched, and it was scheduled to be cleaned up in mid-October, state transportation spokeswoman Kris Olsen said.
In many cases after the cleanup, crews often find that the former residents move nearby or return a few days later or new people move in, Olsen said.
"It's a persistent problem, but the bottom line is our top priority is safety," she said. "While we're sympathetic to people experiencing homelessness, this morning's incident demonstrated that these areas are just not a safe place for any member of the public."
Since November, the city has conducted 441 sweeps of illegal homeless encampments. During that time, only 126 people received permanent housing or shelter services while outreach workers engaged with about 18,50 people.
The mayor has announced a new task force to review the city's policies on encampment sweeps. Several Seattle City Council members have proposed legislation to make changes as well.