Tents under at a homeless encampment under a bridge in NoMa
Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Echoes of a notorious “clearing” incident resounded in testimony from councilmembers and housing advocates at a public roundtable yesterday. Most notably, witnesses recalled the screams of an unhoused man accidentally picked up by a Bobcat front-end loader at a NoMa encampment last month. At the time, Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services Wayne Turnage announced immediate changes to avoid a similar incident. But now, after expedited efforts to move unhoused D.C. residents out of camps and into housing, critics are sending an overwhelming message to Turnage: too little, too late, not safe. 

“Only folks on the by-name list are going to get housing,” Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau, who presided over the meeting, told Turnage. “People [who] were not offered housing because they’re not in the by-name list, they’re going to move into another encampment. We’ve done nothing to improve the shelter conditions and … the spread of COVID. It’s not surprising to me that more people are choosing to sleep outside.”

The encampment clearings are part of a pilot program that launched this year with two major goals: providing housing to about 100 people and permanently eradicating certain encampments. The $3 to $4 million pilot has worked for some people experiencing homelessness, but is also creating difficult conditions for other unhoused residents by clearing encampments before temporary housing is approved or available, many attendees said at the Tuesday hearing. Several councilmembers questioned why encampment evictions and barriers put in place to prevent people’s return must happen in order to house folks. Some unhoused people testified that the evictions forced them into other encampments.

Encampment evictions will continue this month. The Truxton Circle encampment, located at New Jersey Avenue & O Street NW, is next on Turnage’s list. He said the date may “slip” but gave no further details. Turnage left other stones unturned: He didn’t clarify why encampments are cleared during the housing process or whether the pilot would place people in permanent housing at the end of their temporary leases, Axios reports

There’s a major asterisk on permanent housing. In September, the Council voted for a tax hike on the wealthy that would generate an estimated $101 million to fund permanent housing for 1,000 unhoused adults each year apart from other investments. But there are barriers to getting permanent housing vouchers. Jamal Thomas, an unhoused resident who may face a second eviction at Truxton Circle after the NoMa clearing pushed him out, called into the Tuesday meeting to share just one of the hurdles: identification. The process to secure vouchers requires official IDs, something many unhoused people don’t have.    

Amid a horde of unanswered questions about the pilot program, housing advocates’ and councilmembers’ core concerns at the health committee hearing included the following:

“Winter is Coming”

Another Council hearing the same day touched on the city’s plan for snow operations. The approaching winter weather adds an extra urgency to house people living outside before temperatures continue to drop and snow arrives. Robert Hofmann, a Ward 1 resident and member of Sunrise DC who spoke Tuesday, pointed to a Washington Post story stressing that D.C. just experienced the chilliest first week of November in a decade, a warning for the cold still to come.  

“Winter is coming,” said Queenie, an advocate with People Power Action who has been homeless since 2014. “Every day we fear when is it going to come and evict us from McPherson Square.” Queenie said there are no case workers or social workers visiting unhoused residents at McPherson to help them find housing before winter arrives. 

Lack of Pilot Strategy Doesn’t Fly

At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman doubled down on the confusion around whether the pilot program would lead to permanent housing for unhoused residents. Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner 6A01 Keya Chatterjee said the sole strategy she’s heard for encampment clearings has been a carrots-and-sticks approach she finds inhumane and reflective of its origins in treating nonhuman animals. 

“It’s about beating a donkey. … We have moved beyond the belief that physical punishment should be condoned by our society and yet here we are with the … D.C. government talking about sticks and … harming constituents on purpose as part of housing policy,” Chatterjee said.

Marginalized Communities Hit Hardest

“Housing is health care, housing is economic justice, housing is racial injustice,” said Tonia Wellons, president and CEO of Greater Washington Community Foundation. “During a global pandemic and economic crisis that is hitting Black and Brown communities the hardest, we must focus on housing and support for our neighbors who have been impacted by systemic racism and housing discrimination.”

Wellons called for a “people-centered” approach to combat these systemic issues and inhumane conditions she said the pilot encampment program fails to address. Some advocates pointed out stark housing disparities visible to any passerby: majority-White residents living in lavish condos in the same neighborhoods where mostly Black and Brown unhoused residents face the stress of homelessness and impending encampment evictions. 

“You have a lot of these new apartments popping up and a lot of people moving in from out of town but the locals are left out in the cold,” said Mario Key, a former Uber Eats driver who became homeless in 2018 after caring for his dying mother and learning her house was in foreclosure. “It will be nice when these places that are built, they have a place for us, too.” 

Ambar Castillo (tips? acastillo@washingtoncitypaper.com)

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