McPherson Square homeless encampment
Roughly 70 people are set to be evicted from an encampment in McPherson Square. Credit: Alex Koma

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D.C. officials say they’ve worked diligently to connect homeless people living at McPherson Square to housing in the run-up to the encampment’s clearing today. But a coalition of national advocacy groups is frustrated that District leaders twice refused their offers to help people there and connect them with resources beyond what the city can provide.

The National Coalition for Housing Justice, which includes 15 prominent organizations focused on housing and homelessness, twice proposed to “hold a convening (at our expense)” by Feb. 10 that “brings together local and national experts, service providers, McPherson Square residents, funders (including philanthropy), government and other stakeholders to identify the steps necessary to rehouse the residents of McPherson Square,” according to emails forwarded to Loose Lips. The groups said they were “offering our full resources and capacity to help address systemic issues at play” in assisting the roughly 70 people living at the park.

D.C. Deputy Mayor for Health Human Services Wayne Turnage responded to both these entreaties, the emails show, but said on Feb. 10 that the “relentless engagement work” required of his office meant that there was “no block of available time between now and the planned date of closure to prepare for and have the meetings you describe.” The National Park Service has taken the lead on the clearing of the park, since McPherson is federally managed property, but Turnage’s office pushed for an expedited clearing of the encampment, which was originally set to take place on April 12.

To advocates, Turnage’s dismissal of such an offer is more evidence that the primary concern of city officials is not connecting people with housing but getting the encampment, located in a highly trafficked downtown area, cleared as quickly as possible. A spokesperson for Turnage’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment.

“Most communities we work with nationally would welcome national partners and philanthropies here,” Amanda Misiko Andere, the CEO of Funders Together to End Homelessness and a coalition member, tells LL. “Their refusal says they don’t want to prioritize helping people.”

Misiko Andere says her organization and others in the coalition will still try to do what they can to help McPherson’s former residents after the encampment clearing, which begins at 10 a.m. Wednesday. But she would’ve much preferred to work closely with the District, since the city is “in a unique position where it has actual resources to help people,” but just needs help with the logistics of matching people to housing vouchers. The organizations in her coalition could have tried to find resources for them, perhaps via the nonprofit sector, to bridge the gap in the long wait between when someone is given a voucher and they actually get the keys to an apartment, for instance.

And Misiko Andere had hoped to find willing partners in Mayor Muriel Bowser’s administration, given officials’ repeated commitments to helping McPherson residents before the clearing. Turnage wrote in one of his replies to Misiko Andere’s coalition that his goal is to “connect as many residents to housing as possible.” John Falcicchio, Bowser’s chief of staff, wrote on Twitter in response to one of LL’s tweets on McPherson that the purpose of the clearing was to encourage more residents there to begin “accepting services.” Bowser herself said at an event Tuesday that “we want to connect our residents to shelter or housing so that they can also have the supportive services that they need.”

So if that is truly the city’s goal, Misiko Andere wonders, what’s the rush? Her group was “offering resources and assistance with convening stakeholders to develop a different resolution process that is centered around residents in McPherson Square taking part in the decision making process about a plan forward.” She appreciates the city’s concerns about the park’s safety, but she doesn’t expect any of those were so urgent as to not even try another approach before simply closing the park and scattering its residents elsewhere.

“This displacement is just forcing us into residential areas,” some of McPherson’s residents, who asked to remain anonymous, write in an email to LL. “So when you see us outside your [apartment] building or house, you know why. When you see us sleeping in the ATM, you know why. When you see us sleeping on the slide in your local park, you know why. Blame Wayne Turnage and HHS.”

Misiko Andere believes the city’s assurances about the resources it offered to people at McPherson helped convince NPS to proceed with the closing of the park (and others like it). “They hear that and think, ‘Oh great,’ but they’re not social workers, they don’t have training in this sort of thing,” she notes.

She says her groups used some of their connections at the White House to bring the issue to higher-ups at the Department of Interior (which includes NPS) as well as the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, but didn’t succeed in slowing the clearing. Misiko Andere noted that encampment clearings specifically conflict with the Biden administration’s own federal strategy to end homelessness, released in December, but it seems that didn’t have much effect.

What happens next for the people who once lived at McPherson is unclear. Most have repeatedly told outreach workers that they don’t know where they’ll go, but D.C. officials are plainly hoping to get as many as they can into either temporary housing or shelters.

Specifically, Turnage wrote on Feb. 6 that “there are 121 vacancies currently in the [shelter] system, 85 for men and 26 for women.” “This is more than sufficient to house the residents in McPherson Square who have not engaged for services,” he added.

But some advocates have already begun warning that the shelter system could quickly hit capacity this winter as McPherson is closed (particularly as it houses the migrants bused to D.C. from border states). And residents of McPherson have their own reasons to avoid shelters, noting that some “have no ventilation, mold in the ceiling, mold in the showers,” or lack decent security.

“Rather than move to housing, they will move to a new park, corner, or underpass where they will be disconnected from case management and support services,” At-Large Councilmember Robert White, Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau, Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White, Ward 4 Councilmember Janeese Lewis George, and Ward 3 Councilmember Matt Frumin wrote in a Feb. 13 letter to NPS, urging them to pause the clearing.