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The D.C. Council was set to vote on a bill Tuesday that would have prevented Mayor Muriel Bowser from moving forward with homeless encampment clearings during winter. But legislative action has been pushed into hibernation. Introduced by Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau, the bill would have prevented Bowser from continuing the most contested part of her pilot program until the end of hypothermia season. The bill is now slated for reconsideration Dec. 21—the same day a homeless encampment in Ward 4 will be removed, according to Jesse Rabinowitz, senior director for policy and advocacy at Miriam’s Kitchen.

“Just today, we’ve heard that Mayor Bowser has scheduled another encampment eviction in Ward 4 December 21st,” he says, adding since the bill would have been in effect by that day, the clearing “would not have happened if the Council voted yesterday.”

Rabinowitz says he’s “discouraged” by the delayed vote and “concerned” about Bowser’s program being left unblocked for the winter.

“It’s getting colder. COVID is getting worse. We need to make sure that our neighbors experiencing homelessness are met with compassion and housing. Not with police and bulldozers,” he says.

Three encampment clearings have been met with bulldozers so far. Two in NoMa (where a bulldozer picked up a man in a tent) and one in Truxton Circle. Two more encampments in Foggy Bottom are slated to be cleared. Bowser has argued that her push to clear encampments and place people experiencing homelessness into apartments or hotel rooms is to protect them during winter. She said in November that the Council’s bill “doesn’t make sense.

“It seems that these lawmakers are arguing that we should keep people outside during hypothermia season,” she said. “What we’re saying is nobody should live on the street when we have shelter and housing available.”

Rabinowitz says he and other advocates are not arguing for encampments to stay up indefinitely. They want unhoused residents to receive homes, but he says it’s a false narrative that all unhoused residents evicted from encampments are getting housing.

“What I’m concerned about is the fact that people have had their tents thrown away and their communities destroyed,” he says. “Now they’re still living outside, in the winter, during a pandemic.”

Many of the councilmembers gave varied reasons as to why they wanted delays.

  • At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman, who motioned to delay the vote Tuesday, wants a middle ground between clearing encampments and allowing encampments anywhere.
  • Ward 2 Councilmember Brooke Pinto wants to let the originally planned Foggy Bottom encampment clearing more forward. Then city officials should re-evaluate how to pursue future clearings.
  • Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen wants to retool the language so that encampments aren’t permitted on sidewalks or near schools. At-large Councilmember Christina Henderson agreed, mentioning an encampment near Seaton Elementary School.

Rabinowitz says that the Seaton encampment is a great representation of the circular consequences of evicting those people living in them.

“People were staying outside of Seaton School. D.C. came in and evicted them. They moved to Gompers Park and Burke Park. The National Park [Service] evicted them. They moved to NoMa where D.C. came in and evicted them,” he says. “It’s just this cycle of displacement without actually offering people the housing that they need.”

Ward 4 Councilmember Janeese Lewis George and At-Large Councilmember Robert White both objected to the delay. White (who is running against Bowser in 2022) called the program “chaos” while Lewis George said, “There’s no reason housing someone has to come after a tent encampment has been ripped away.”

Rabinowitz agrees, saying the looming threat of eviction is “throwing away the best shot” at ending homelessness in the District.

“[We are] focusing on encampments, which destroyed trust with the government, which displaced people so they can’t be in touch with our case managers and outreach workers, and sowed fear about people engaging with government services,” he says. “We want to see the mayor shift her focus from harm and criminalization to focus only on the housing that ends homelessness.”

Bailey Vogt (tips? bvogt@washingtoncitypaper.com)

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