Troopers and WSDOT workers at the scene of the crash. The green belt where the crash happened is within the city limits of Seattle, but the land is overseen by the state. Image source: The Seattle Times
A homeless person who was sleeping in a tent died on Monday morning when a car left the road near the northbound I-5 offramp to Northeast 50th Street. The car drifted onto a median located between the freeway and the off-ramp where homeless people had set up tents.
A 19 year old man named Walter Burton was sleeping in the tent when the car struck it. He also went by the names Walter Stroud and Kingwalt LeDiamond. According to an acquaintance, Burton has been living on the median for over a year, and had said that felt safe there. He was one of the hundreds of homeless people who live in encampments in green belts around the city.
The 33-year-old driver, Oscar Gutierrez de Jesus, fled the scene and was later apprehended by police. Investigators told reporter that he was suspected of DUI; he was transported to Harborview Medical Center for treatment of minor injuries and a blood draw for toxicology tests. He was arrested for investigation of vehicular homicide. He has a previous record of arrest for suspicion of driving under the influence and a conviction for negligent driving.
Homeless people fall through the cracks in Seattle
According to the Washington State Department of Transportation, the median where tents had been set up had been cleared by authorities before, and another sweep was planned for October. Although camping in green belts is illegal, Seattle’s homeless residents often resort to living in illegal encampments due to limited beds in shelters, strict rules that penalize drug users in shelters, or confusion about the resources available to homeless people. A recent sweep of several massive homeless encampments in The Jungle, a large green belt cutting through the south of the city, left hundreds of long-time campers displaced and a nearby camp in Sodo struggling to keep up with a surge in residents.
According to Mayor Ed Murray, the median where the accident occurred is state property, not city property. He also told the public that the city lacks the funds to effectively combat homelessness, and that tax increases would be necessary to fund more shelters. “This one again points to the complexity and tragedy that we face in this city,” Murray told reporters. “Given the size and scope of this crisis and the extent it’s growing, it’s growing quicker than our resources.”
Local reporters have slammed Mayor Murray for making only token efforts to assist the city’s homeless residents. A writer from Seattleish pointed out Murray’s history of expensive new city positions, reports, and plans, combined with hasty attempts to “clean up” politically problematic spots, without any significant increase in the number of available beds in shelters or long-term low-income options for homeless residents trying to find a safe place to sleep. The Stranger also pointed out Murray’s troubling history of reliance on sweeping encampments, misstating the content of proposals for limitations on sweeps, and his repeated claims that the city does not have enough money to address the homelessness crisis. Seattle Weekly’s editorial board took a strong stance by urging the city council to pass an anti-eviction ordinance for homeless encampments, although an article published the week before the accident by reporter Casey Jaywork acknowledged that homeless advocates and members of the city council were skeptical of the idea of a quick fix for a problem that has been building for decades.