The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Deep divides over program meant to move homeless out of encampments are on display at D.C. Council hearing

WASHINGTON, DC — OCT 4: The homeless encampment at the M Street underpass in NOMA was removed by city crews in Washington, DC October 4, 2021. Outreach workers who promised vouchers and apartments to homeless residents along the L and M Street underpass in NoMa had come and gone, leaving dozens who had refused help or had not qualified for the city?s new pilot program. (Marissa Lang/TWP)
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D.C. Deputy Mayor Wayne Turnage fired back at critics of Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s approach to clearing some of the District’s most sprawling homeless encampments during a roundtable discussion Tuesday, defending the pilot program and denying that D.C. officials had evicted anyone from camps that are being transformed into no-tent zones — despite testimony from homeless residents saying they’d been pushed out.

The hearing, which included more than 50 witnesses and spanned more than seven hours, exposed a bitter divide in the District over the government’s approach to homelessness and encampments.

Turnage testified that homeless encampments that have filled D.C. parks and sidewalks with tents have increased by more than 40 percent over the past year, creating an untenable situation that he described as dangerous and unhealthy for all community members and unlivable for the homeless people there.

The pilot program, which launched this year, seeks to provide housing to about 100 homeless people while permanently eliminating selected encampments and transforming them into no-camping zones. Critics have lambasted the program as rushed and careless, citing an incident in which a homeless man was scooped up by a front-loader as District crews worked to clear his tent under a Metro overpass in Northeast Washington last month.

Homeless advocates and some residents urged the council to decouple the services part of the program — providing housing through expedited year-long vouchers — from the effort to clear encampments by specific dates.

Turnage said the dates were flexible and an encampment clearing would proceed only “if all of our efforts to house the residents at the park have been successfully exhausted.”

“No one has been ticketed. No one has been arrested. And no one has been evicted from an encampment site,” Turnage told council members.

“That’s untrue,” council member Brianne K. Nadeau (D-Ward 1) said later.

Residents who had been living, in some cases for years, in the underpasses along L Street and M Street NE were told last month that the District was transforming the encampment into a no-tent zone. Many who were not eligible to receive housing through the pilot program picked up their things and left. A small handful have remained, though their tents have been thrown away.

Those who stayed have found space to sleep in small gaps in a line of concrete barricades that District workers put along the sidewalks where the tents used to be.

Several homeless people who joined the discussion by phone expressed a deep sense of hopelessness and frustration to council members, whom they pleaded with to help.

Jamal Thomas, 37, who has been homeless on and off for seven years, told council members that he had been living in NoMa until the encampments on L Street and M Street were cleared last month. Now he’s living at the encampment at New Jersey Avenue and O Street NW, which is scheduled to be cleared next week. He’s not on the list of residents who will be provided housing through the pilot program, though he said he’s hopeful he can get a voucher for affordable housing sometime in December. By then, he said, he’s not sure where he’ll be.

“We want to help you,” council member Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7) told him via video chat.

“I hear this all the time,” Thomas responded. “I hear it all the time, and now we’re in a situation where I was staying on L Street, and there’s no one on L Street no more, so they told me I have to relocate here. Now they’re saying that we have to move from here on the 18th, so it’s a lose-lose situation. … It’s not just me. There’s 15, maybe 20 people who don’t have the opportunity to get housed. I’m speaking for me, but I’m speaking for others, too. Where we gonna go? At a bus stop crowded up? Laying on a sidewalk with seven others?”

Bowser (D) ran in 2014 on promises of overhauling the District’s approach to the homeless, including its shelter system. But the mayor’s most recent plan has set off a cascade of criticism from homeless advocates and concerned residents who say encampment evictions and creating no-tent zones harm some of the District’s poorest residents and effectively criminalizes homeless peoples’ decision to sleep on the street.

Nearly everyone who testified at the all-day hearing agreed that the District should prioritize housing and offer services to the city’s homeless residents, though witnesses offered vastly different takes on whether encampment clearings should proceed.

This discussion has taken on renewed urgency in recent months as the Bowser administration has touted the pilot program, which will provide housing to about 100 people who had been living in encampments under the Metro overpasses in NoMa, along E Street near 20th Street NW, at a park on New Jersey Avenue and O Street NW, and amid a cluster of tents on 25th Street and Virginia Avenue NW.

Homeless advocates, service providers and formerly homeless people, among others, urged the council to eliminate no-tent zones in the District until the homeless can be connected to affordable housing and services to address other needs, including mental and physical health, addiction treatment and other forms of intervention.

But some witnesses said the encampments, which have overtaken parks, underpasses and other corners of the city, pose imminent health and safety risks to members of the broader community and encouraged the council to allow the pilot program to proceed.

Rachelle Nigro, a representative on the Advisory Neighborhood Commission in Ward 6, presented council members with a slide show that included photos of the charred remains of a tent that burned down in the park on New Jersey Avenue and O Street NW while a homeless resident was still inside. The person did not survive.