We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
Mayor Muriel Bowser’s public game of footsie with congressional Republicans over the criminal code revision is perhaps the most visible example of her administration letting the federal government intervene on its behalf. But it is far from the only one.
The efforts of Bowser administration officials to accelerate the clearing of a homeless encampment at McPherson Square might seem unrelated to the heated debate unfolding over the criminal code at first glance. Loose Lips, however, sees more than a few parallels.
In the latter case, Bowser made a big show of her opposition to the code changes and vetoed the bill, helping to earn the attention of GOP lawmakers and stir up a big fight at the Capitol over a federal disapproval resolution that ensures the Council will spend yet more time re-litigating legislation that has twice passed unanimously. Bowser has decried federal meddling in D.C.’s affairs, but still used the occasion to promote her own proposed changes to the code.
Federal Washington has proved a similarly useful ally for Bowser on the issues at McPherson Square. Her administration has spent the last year and a half pursuing a program of encampment clearing, which has been widely decried by housing and homelessness advocates as an effort more focused on making the city’s homeless less visible than actually getting them housed. The National Park Service has been a willing ally in this regard and has assisted with park closures on a variety of federally managed sites, such as Scott Circle and Union Station, prompting the latest controversy at McPherson Square.
The NPS planned to clear the encampment of roughly 70 people on April 12, just past the end of hypothermia season, but recently announced plans to accelerate that timeline to Feb. 15 at the urging of D.C. Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services Wayne Turnage. In a statement to LL, NPS spokesperson Mike Litterst cited “increasing levels of violence, illegal drug use, and significant criminal activity” at McPherson Square, “which has impeded social services’ outreach and endangered social service providers, mental health clinicians, unsheltered individuals, and the public” as the rationale for the expedited clearing. But the park’s location in a highly trafficked area downtown (as Bowser pushes for a revitalization of such neighborhoods) seems an equally likely motivating factor.
Just as in other cases of clearings on federal land, the NPS acts as a helpful intermediary for Turnage and Bowser, allowing them to unilaterally speed up this clearing with virtually no warning. The mayor seems perfectly fine with allowing a federal agency that’s generally unaccountable to D.C. residents to rapidly upend the lives of 70 people. Advocates for the homeless and several D.C. councilmembers were at least able to try and pass legislation barring the city from conducting such encampment clearings during winter months back in 2021, even if that effort was ultimately unsuccessful. There’s nothing much at all anyone concerned about the current situation can do except petition officials like Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and President Joe Biden, who probably have a few other things occupying their time these days.
“When you think about the way NPS regards our parks and public spaces, it’s almost as if they don’t know they exist most of the time, so it’s curious that this is what they’ll pay attention to,” Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau, who authored the encampment legislation in 2021, tells LL. “They don’t stay on top of the trash or the snow or public safety issues … but all of a sudden homelessness is a big issue for them, and not in a helpful way. Their only response is to clear the park.”
However, Litterst said his agency is “working closely with DMHHS” and is “committed to taking a social services-first approach” to the clearing. Turnage added in a statement that his office has “daily engagement” with people at McPherson that “will continue up to and post the scheduled site closure date.”
“Residents still must be willing to engage and accept services,” he added.
And Litterst said the agencies are still pursuing the Feb. 15 eviction date, despite entreaties from Nadeau, Ward 4 Councilmember Janeese Lewis George, At-Large Councilmember Robert White, and dozens of advocacy organizations for a pause.
“We were led to believe that this closure was inevitable,” Christy Respress, the head of the homeless services provider Pathways to Housing, wrote in an email to LL. “That said, if the closure is delayed it gives our staff more time to work with each of the residents of McPherson Square on a plan, whether that is moving into housing, including temporary housing, shelter, or another location.”
DMHHS has pledged intensive outreach to people at McPherson Square before the park is closed. And the Bowser administration does appear to be giving some thought to moving some of those residents into the Pandemic Emergency Program for Medically Vulnerable Residents, or PEP-V, as a temporary solution; two different members of the city’s Interagency Council on Homelessness tell LL that Bowser’s deputies have discussed the idea with the group, which is comprised of government officials, homeless services providers, and advocates.
The federally funded program has generally been credited as a great success at getting people off the streets during the pandemic, moving them into empty hotel rooms and offering them support until they’re able to find permanent housing. The city is winding down the program over the course of the next year as federal money runs out, but advocates expect that D.C. has enough capacity to offer rooms to at least some of the people at McPherson Square, though it’s not clear how many.
“The issue is that the administration has been fairly committed to the idea that if you’re going into PEP-V, you have to already be matched with housing,” says Kate Coventry, a homelessness policy analyst at the DC Fiscal Policy Institute and member of the ICH. “And almost no one at McPherson is right now … These are people who came from Scott Circle and the other encampments closed around the city. They’ve been shuffled around and that means it’s been hard to engage with them.”
Most of the people at the McPherson Square encampment should qualify for city aid, like a housing voucher, and recent tax increases on the wealthy ensured that D.C. saw the largest increase in vouchers targeted to help homeless residents in at least 10 years. Ward 2 Councilmember Brooke Pinto, who represents the area around McPherson Square, tweeted Sunday that 40 of the 70 residents “have begun engagement [with] providers for housing” vouchers. (Her spokesperson did not respond to a request for additional comment.)
But White is frustrated to see outreach work framed in this way, considering the very well-documented delays in getting people housed if they’re even found eligible for a voucher. Officials said last year that it takes an average of 158 days between matching a voucher holder to a case manager and them actually signing a lease. If people at McPherson are just beginning these conversations now, it’s unlikely they’ll have a home by the time the square is closed next week.
“The reality on the ground is that no one at the encampment knows where they’re going on the 15th,” says White, the Council’s newly installed housing committee chair, who has visited McPherson Square several times since news emerged of its accelerated closure. “We are sweeping human beings from one patch of earth to another with nowhere for them to go … It is imperative that the administration develop an emergency plan to deal with this backlog. We have more than enough vouchers, but we’re stuck with this logjam.”
Unclogging the system is unlikely to happen overnight, however, particularly considering that one of the main entities involved in managing housing vouchers, the D.C. Housing Authority, isn’t exactly in the best shape these days. The Department of Human Services is constrained by what Nadeau deems D.C.’s “dysfunctional” human resources agency, hampering its ability to hire the case managers that help voucher holders use that money to rent apartments.
“This is an agency that is overburdened and doing its best, but it’s not quite good enough for what we’re talking about here,” says Nadeau, who spent years chairing the committee overseeing DHS.
White, who has assumed oversight of the department, is interested in exploring solutions like easing hiring requirements for case managers (a key request from service providers). There are also budgetary moves to make, like adding money for hiring incentives or bringing on additional housing inspectors, since DCHA has to review units before they’re rented to voucher holders. He sees long-term answers to this problem too, like his proposal to offer free master’s degrees for mental health professionals at the University of the District of Columbia to build up the pipeline of workers qualified for these roles.
“None of these are problems that can’t be fixed, but all of them require the administration to want to fix them,” White says.
That is the issue that advocates and their allies on the Council keep running into: An administration seeking to clear encampments before these problems can be addressed.
Camps might make passersby uncomfortable, forcing them to reckon with a visible reminder of inequality in the richest nation in the world, but service providers say they’ve never felt threatened by anyone living there. In fact, Nadeau says she regularly heard that “crime was happening to homeless residents and near homeless residents,” largely due to the feds’ general lack of interest in policing the square, “but it wasn’t being done by homeless residents.” She says she can’t understand why the mayoral administration is moving so urgently on this issue.
“I don’t understand why this has to happen next week,” Nadeau says. “And I’m disappointed to see the deputy mayor continuing down this path despite all the pushback we’ve been providing for more than a year on [the clearings]. I’m not sure what else it’s going to take to stop them.”
LL inquired if Nadeau might consider reviving her bill barring encampment clearings, even though it probably wouldn’t do much to stop DMHSS from pursuing NPS-backed clearings. The emergency legislation failed on a 7-5 vote last time around, though the Council has changed since then. At-Large Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie, an opponent, replaces supporter Elissa Silverman. But Ward 5 Councilmember Zachary Parker is now in McDuffie’s old seat, while Ward 3 Councilmember Matt Frumin replaces another no vote in Mary Cheh.
Nadeau says it’s an idea “worth thinking about,” particularly if she can move the bill as permanent legislation rather than on an emergency basis—the former requires a simple majority, while the latter takes nine votes to pass. But she adds that “I don’t know that enough has changed in the composition of the Council to move it forward.”
“No one really wants to go through that again,” she says.
That leaves opponents of the clearings hoping desperately to change the mind of an administration that seems dead set on pursuing clearings, despite lots of evidence that there are more effective ways to get people housed. The issue will almost certainly crop up again once McPherson Square is closed. White will just have to hope he can shame the mayor enough in the meantime to get her to reconsider.
“We have to be having difficult conversations about how we allow this many people, this many Black, native Washingtonians, to end up unhoused in one of the wealthiest cities in the world,” White says.