Encampment closures displace, criminalize D.C. residents experiencing homelessness
On Dec. 21, 2021 the D.C. Council rejected an emergency bill aimed at restricting Mayor Bowser’s authority to remove homeless encampments via a pilot program. This decision came on the same day as Homeless Persons Memorial Day, and council members advocating for the bill as well as advocacy groups and community members were outraged.
As of Jan. 2020, the District of Columbia had an estimated 6,380 individuals experiencing homelessness on any given day. Now up for reelection, Mayor Bowser continues to promise funding and resources to combat homelessness in Washington, DC, as she previously did in her former campaign. She announced a pilot program to clear encampments and provide assistance to those living there. (Encampments are groups of tents or shelters set up in public places, often parks and underpasses, that serve as a refuge for homeless populations. There are approximately 119 encampments in the District, and NoMa is one of the largest.) The program targets three encampments located at the NoMa Underpasses, 20/21st and E. St NW, and New Jersey and O St. Park NW. The goal of the pilot program is to “provide some of the District’s most vulnerable residents with the opportunity to participate in intensive onsite case management and behavioral health/substance use support while they relocate from unsuitable living conditions into viable and affordable housing options.”
This pilot program seeks to pair individuals with the District's pre-existing program for permanent supportive housing (PSH). The Permanent Supportive Housing Program “provides permanent housing and supportive services to individuals and families experiencing homelessness to ensure housing stabilization, maximum levels of self-sufficiency and an overall better quality of life.” At an Advisory Neighborhood Commission meeting, Deputy Chief of Staff for DMHHS Jessica Smith said more than 90 percent of encampment residents would be eligible for PSH and noted an expedited process due to increased resources for the Department of Behavioral Health. Despite these promises, the pilot program has faults, and advocates around D.C. have begun calling for a halt of the program. More concerns were raised after the first clearing took place on Oct. 4.
One cause for concern is timing. Though placement typically takes up to nine months, the city aimed to place residents of the NoMa encampments in PSH in a fraction of the time. Reginald Black, a constituent representative for the Interagency Council on Homelessness, said, “I just don’t understand what is new about this process that would quickly house people.” Those living in encampments also fear that the new pilot program will not lead to accelerated housing as promised. For example, a person experiencing homelessness expressed frustration with the city’s timeline and procedure. He stated the city should have “made sure people were securing apartments first before closing [the encampments] down.” The program is supposed to provide ample notice to residents of encampments before clearing; however, the current advanced notice time does not seem to be enough. If residents do not clear the area, city workers accompanied by DMHHS staff and law enforcement throw their belongings away. Due to this policy, a man was picked up by a front-loader amid the mass clear-outs of an encampment. He was taken to the hospital and treated for injuries. In the beginning of December, measures to clear the New Jersey and O St. Park NW began. Canvassing had taken place for the last 90 days in an attempt to create a list of all of the residents. This list, however, was incomplete due to individuals continuously moving in and out of encampments, especially with some flocking from the NoMa clearing to this park to seek refuge. The scene was even more egregious than the NoMa clearing, as thirty police officers fluctuated in and out of the area, thirteen police vehicles surrounded the park, the city solidified a black metal fencing into concrete creating a barrier around the park, two heavy machinery vehicles sat awaiting the clearing, and law enforcement closed down the surrounding streets while also not allowing the public or media access to the park.
City officials have also expressed concerns about the capabilities of this program. Wayne Turnage, the District’s Deputy Mayor for Human Services, said that individuals began flocking to underpasses expecting to be cleared, hoping to receive the priority for housing and services promised in this pilot program. This occurrence caused overcrowding, a hostile environment for space and resulted in some individuals not receiving their housing vouchers. In addition to Blacks’ concerns about the timeline of this program, he also questioned how this program will function alongside a backlog of other individuals still awaiting housing. There is already high demand for housing vouchers from the Pandemic Emergency Program for Medically Vulnerable. Black says he worries funding will run out for the 522 individuals still housed in hotels awaiting a move into PSH. This number does not account for the now increasing number of residents displaced by the closing encampments.
The dissatisfaction with this program and fear of what will happen once forced to move is echoed by many living in the encampments and summarized well by Mama J, who has lived on L street for more than nine years. “I don’t think people should be punished for [their] existence,” she said. She expressed a lack of trust in the government and government-backed programs like this. Tim has lived at the E St. encampment for five years and attempted to secure housing through the District's PSH program before. Still, he never felt comfortable participating in the government’s programs. “They showed me two places. I don’t want to live there,” Tim said. It is unclear what assistance will be given to residents like Tim and Mama J, who are not interested in participating in PSH via the encampment clean-ups, or the 10 percent of residents who do not qualify.
Nevertheless, there have been success stories from this program like Emmanuel Johnson. After Johnson was released from prison, he spent three years living in various encampments in the District. When the NoMa clearing happened, he accepted an apartment and was grateful for a fresh start. However, once housed, additional struggles emerged- he needed to finish a course to earn his GED, find a job despite his felony record, and obtain and continue taking medication for his mental health. Christy Respress said “[h]ousing ends homelessness, then lots of other hard work comes … the hard work of connecting with family and finding a career for some people, reconnecting with faith communities, addressing long-standing mental health needs or physical health or substance issues. But housing gives you a safe place to start to do those things.” Respress is the executive director of Pathways to Housing DC which is the nonprofit group working with the city to help find housing for the people in the NoMa encampment and connect them with services such as mental health care, education and job training.
The ongoing criminalization of homelessness is most concerning, and this pilot program may prove only to further exacerbate the issue. The goals of this program sound promising and necessary. Still, creating “no-tent zones” is likely to criminalize homelessness further, making it illegal to live in some public spaces. Under the new program, moving one’s belongings back to the cleared site of the encampment would be unlawful. The pilot program is paired with a significantly higher level of trash collection and restorative cleaning at the pilot sites. This aspect criminalizes homelessness by making tents, which are the only shelter for many residents experiencing homelessness, illegal. Dan Brown, a resident at the E St. and 20th encampment, explained his frustration, that “they’re making mandates without offering solutions.” The ACLU also issued a statement voicing their concerns with the pilot program, stating that “[t]he Fifth Amendment requires that the government not deprive people of property without due process of law. Yet, by establishing ‘no camping zones,’ the Bowser administration is creating zones of public land subject to ‘immediate dispossession’ with no notice, no right to appeal or challenge the decision, and no proof that the government has any special concerns for their property,” the group wrote. “This threatens the rights and liberties of unhoused D.C. residents.”
After the rejection of the emergency bill, commissioners, advocacy groups, and community members are still continuing to demand a halt to this pilot program. Community members began with demonstrations the night before the vote on the emergency bill, as they carried a coffin to signify the 69 residents that advocates say died “without the dignity of a home” in the District this year. At least 22 of them had been accepted into voucher programs but died before they could move. Critics have called the program rushed, unsafe and incomplete, and demanded Wayne Turnage make changes. ANC Commissioner Yannii Omictin said, although the housing vouchers provided through the program address the homelessness crisis, officials need to make sure everyone has had a chance to receive them before closing encampments and displacing residents. He said, for example, a large portion of former residents at the NoMa encampment did not receive vouchers when they were evicted. Commissioner Joel Causey stated at the meeting that “this process needs to become more thorough and make sure that it takes in all of our residents.”
Nadeu, who chairs the council’s Committee on Human Services said, “Most folks, given the opportunity for housing on a timeline that works for them, will choose housing. Rushing people, forcing people to take the first available units, assuming that because they’re homeless, they shouldn’t have that choice,” Nadeau said. “That’s insulting. It’s undignified.” Without offering real solutions for our most vulnerable communities, families and individuals will continue to suffer. While programs like this one are a step in the right direction, much more is needed to ensure safety for our residents, genuine autonomy in decision-making, and a complete halt to the criminalization of lack of housing. Instead of pushing our residents out as a way to forget about or mask the issue we need to offer a helping hand and invest in our communities.