Multiple state agencies have been clearing away an extensive homeless encampment from underneath Interstate 5 in Chehalis.
State troopers conducted an early-morning sweep of the area Monday near a footpath that connects a Park & Ride lot on Main Street with Southwest Riverside Drive off I-5 exit 77.
Workers from the Washington State Department of Transportation and a crew from Cedar Creek Corrections Center in Littlerock then began removing items, from makeshift toilets to tents, garbage and stuffed animals.
Piles of wooden pallets that were used to construct crude shanties lay stacked under one of the highway on-ramps. Cliff Nowels, a WSDOT supervisor in charge of the situation, estimated as many as six 10-yard dumpsters would be needed to dispose of all the trash and debris.
“We’ve had several complaints made through WSDOT, the city and state patrol,” Nowels said. “This has been about two months in the making. We’re mainly hauling out nothing but garbage.”
Nowels estimated that more than 20 people regularly bunked in the sprawling campsite before a 72-hour notice to vacate was posted on June 4.
Chehalis police and city staff last ordered campers out of the Park & Ride lot in September 2016.
Scott Wilcox, a maintenance superintendent for WSDOT, said the majority of complaints came from parents whose children use the pathway.
“When they leave a big mess like that, it becomes a biohazard with the creek running right through there,” Wilcox said. “Bridge inspectors have to be able to get under there, and they can’t do that safely with those camps down there.”
Wilcox said a Washington State Patrol trooper led a meeting in early March with representatives from the Lewis County Gospel Mission and other advocacy groups in an effort to “make sure we attack this in the right way and respect these people.”
He did not attend the meeting, but said his understanding was that campers declined local offers to help them move and seek employment.
Gospel Mission Director Fay Ternan said she’d expected to receive more concrete information about the eviction efforts before they happened, but that she hadn’t heard anything more until Monday.
“People that come here are still going to come here, but they'll be more upset, which gets people more agitated,” Ternan said.
“We end up having to put out more of whatever we have, clothing, sleeping bags, anything like that the people lost or left behind.”
People displaced by the cleanup were able to set personal belongings aside at the work site with the promise they could retrieve them later.
Members of law enforcement searched the area for illicit and dangerous materials before WSDOT was able to send workers and machinery down the embankment. Nowels said he was surprised that officers didn’t find any drugs, needles or weapons.
Members of the Cedar Creek inmate population are working with the local branch of WSDOT for the first time, according to Wilcox.
The state Department of Corrections and Department of Transportations have an agreement that crews made up of incarcerated persons can assist with certain kinds of work that is often limited to clearing brush and other less expansive tasks.
“We have a whole bunch of different off-site programs that are available to any of the public agencies as well as nonprofits,” said Karen Takacs, Communication Manager for the Department of Corrections.
“No work crew members were present for the evacuation of the residents.”
Wilcox said once the cleanup is finished, the focus will shift to making sure the camp isn’t reestablished.
“Now the challenge will be how do we keep them from coming back and this just being a spring cleaning for them,” Wilcox said. “It’s too bad. It’s what you see in Seattle and Vancouver, not here, but apparently it’s become the norm everywhere.”