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D.C. delays clearing homeless encampment as mayor’s controversial housing-first pilot continues

The homeless encampment at the M Street underpass in NoMa was removed by city crews on October 4. (Marissa Lang/The Washington Post)
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The District will delay clearing the homeless encampment that has filled the park at New Jersey Ave. and O Street NW until after the Thanksgiving holiday to give more residents time to move into housing, D.C. officials said.

The encampment, where a homeless person died in a fire that engulfed a tent last month, is the second location where the mayor’s controversial housing-first pilot program will seek to establish a no-camping zone by clearing the area and offering year-long leases and hotel rooms to a select number of unhoused individuals.

Instead of clearing the encampment Thursday morning, as originally scheduled, a fence will go up around the park the last week of November, ahead of what D.C. officials said were scheduled renovations to the grounds. Encampment residents will be allowed to enter and exit until the new deadline: Dec. 2.

The postponement comes about a week after a heated D.C. Council hearing, in which council members, homeless advocates and encampment residents themselves questioned the merits and motivations of the mayor’s pilot, formally known as the as Coordinated Assistance and Resources for Encampments, or the CARE pilot.

Critics have accused the program of being rushed and careless, citing an incident last month in which a homeless man was scooped up by a front-loader as District crews used heavy machinery to clear his tent under a Metro overpass during the pilot’s inaugural sweep. But Deputy Mayor Wayne Turnage has fired back at critics, and in an interview with The Post this week said the District “cannot let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

D.C. Council members, deputy mayor clash over program meant to move homeless out of encampments

“We hope that it does not erode their confidence in our efforts to make sure that one day soon they will not have to live in tents. We recognize there will be a number of challenges,” Turnage told The Post. He added that the encampments have posed greater challenges than his office and the District’s Interagency Council on Homelessness had anticipated.

“At New Jersey and O, that entire park will have to be renovated,” he said. “No resident can be living in that park while the construction is underway, and that is why we will be working extensively to get those residents housed or connect them to services.”

About 32 people at the New Jersey Avenue park have been enrolled in the pilot program, according to Jamal Weldon, the encampment response program manager under Turnage. But nearly as many additional people have flocked to the encampment since the August registration for the pilot had ended, and Weldon said officials are working to “connect those additional residents to services” ahead of the new clear-out date.

The mayor’s pilot program launched over the summer as an “experiment to see if this model — housing first — has any efficacy,” according to Turnage, but quickly drew criticism from advocates and members of the D.C. Council who have argued that the program creates unnecessary trauma by evicting homeless individuals from sites scheduled to be transformed into no-camping zones.

Turnage has rejected the notion that anyone has been evicted from encampments in D.C. under the pilot program, which kicked off last month in NoMa. He noted that the mayor’s office has not forcibly removed anyone from the encampments, though signs posted along the street and communication from city officials indicated to residents that they could no longer live there.

A number of homeless individuals testified at last week’s D.C. Council meeting that they had been told they needed to vacate the public spaces where they had been living. Others expressed confusion over the distinctions between who was included in the pilot and who was left out. Several cited their own experiences of moving from encampment to encampment, searching for a place to stay, but not being offered a voucher or a hotel room in which to sleep.

At the NoMa site, under the Metro overpass at L and M Streets NE, large concrete barricades were erected along the sidewalks last month where tents had once stood.

A small handful of people who have remained at the underpass, including a chronically homeless woman known by many as Mama J, have taken to sleeping wrapped in blankets in the small spaces between the barricades.

Turnage pointed to this as proof that “evictions are not happening.”

But soon Mama J and others who have managed to stay at the NoMa site will be forced to leave. Construction is scheduled to begin to repair light fixtures along the L Street underpass, Turnage said, and the NoMa Business Improvement District (BID) is planning to install art displays along the M Street underpass, Turnage said.

“We are working with her every day to try to convince her to go into housing. If she were a full-scale eviction she would not still be there,” Turnage said of Mama J. “If she decides she doesn’t want it, and it’s time for the construction to start … she’ll have to go.”

One injured as D.C. clears longtime NoMa homeless encampment in launch of new pilot program

As the months grow colder and the District heads into hypothermia season, the issue of housing becomes more dire. Sleeping outside can be deadly in freezing temperatures. Fires that have killed homeless people trapped inside tents or tarps are more likely to break out in the coldest months.

Turnage said the number of homeless encampments in the District has ballooned over the past year, rising by nearly 40 percent since 2020. Last month, Weldon said, the District counted 134 encampments of various sizes dotting sidewalks and parks throughout D.C.

The CARE pilot is working with people from four of those encampments — the now-vacated NoMa underpass, the park on New Jersey Avenue, along E Street near 20th Street NW and a growing cluster of tents on 25th Street and Virginia Avenue NW.

The Virginia Avenue encampment was added late in the process as officials noted the growing number of homeless people pitching tents in Foggy Bottom. Adding the additional encampment to the program will increase the cost, Turnage said, from just above $3 million to closer to $4 million.

The mayor’s office is relying on money collected from various D.C. agencies who had a surplus in their 2021 budgets to fund the program into 2022, Turnage said. He did not specify which agencies. The question of how the District is paying for this program has been raised by several members of the D.C. Council, including Brianne K. Nadeau (D-Ward 1) who chairs the Committee on Human Services.

“What that money pays for, it pays for housing, it pays for hotel stays it pays for case management workers, and in no case are we shutting down existing programs or taking money from existing programs that is presently being used or cannot be replaced before it is needed,” he said. “What do you care which agency we got it from? Tell me why that matters; we’re putting people into housing.”

Some homeless advocates have urged the mayor’s office to decouple the services part of the pilot — setting up homeless residents with year-long vouchers for an apartment in the District — from the part of the pilot that establishes no-camping zones. At last week’s Council-led roundtable, witnesses repeatedly asked why evictions were necessary if the stated goal of the pilot is to prioritize housing.

Turnage rejected these arguments, saying this week that the pilot’s other explicit goal is “to clear the sites.”