The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Majority of D.C. residents support clearing of homeless encampments, Post poll finds

At the same time, District residents give Mayor Muriel Bowser low ratings on creating and maintaining affordable housing

An encampment in the L Street NE tunnel, where homeless people sought refuge in January 2020. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
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A majority of D.C. residents support an effort by Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) to clear homeless encampments, while giving her low marks for building and maintaining affordable housing in the District, according to a Washington Post poll.

Three-fourths of Washingtonians polled say they support the city’s plan to clear the camps and provide housing support for the camps’ residents, including large majorities across age, income and racial groups. Bowser’s pilot program has sparked pushback from advocates, the American Civil Liberties Union and a handful of council members. The controversy, however, has not stopped the cleanups.

“The encampments themselves, while not every one may be hurting public health and safety, personally I’ve walked by them in NoMa and I’ve had my child and myself cursed at,” said Katie, 37, a D.C. resident who asked that her full name not be used for privacy reasons. “I’m not saying they need to be removed because of the discomfort of people walking by,” she said, though she added that she supports removal as long as the residents are relocated.

According to The Post’s poll, 19 percent of residents oppose the policy. In interviews, some residents offered support for camp clearings while also worrying about whether resources were being properly directed to solve more structural issues related to homelessness.

“I really have mixed feelings. I understand why the clearings are necessary,” said Kristina Svensson, 53, of D.C.'s Chevy Chase neighborhood. “I don’t really want to walk downtown much now because it’s not pleasant, and also because it’s a security thing.”

Svensson also wondered, though, if policies are in place to address root causes.

“Job training and mental health are the two issues that are feeding into the homelessness problem that I feel aren’t being addressed now,” she said.

D.C. Council votes to continue the clearing of homeless encampments

Concerns over homelessness track with larger citywide anxieties related to affordable housing.

When asked to name the overall biggest problems facing the District, housing costs and housing is the No. 2 most frequent response — at 14 percent — with another 7 percent citing homelessness. Crime is the most frequent response, cited by 36 percent of residents, up sharply from 2019 as housing concerns declined.

A 69 percent majority of D.C. residents also say it would be difficult to afford rent in their neighborhood if they had to move from their current home, a concern that is higher among Black residents and longtime District residents.

Fears over spiking housing costs are also reflected in the low ratings residents gave the mayor for creating and maintaining affordable housing in the District. According to the poll, 65 percent of respondents say Bowser is doing a “not so good” or “poor” job, and 64 percent rate her negatively on addressing homelessness in the District, both similar to her ratings in 2019. Bowser’s negative marks on housing and homelessness contrast with her 58 percent overall job approval rating in the latest poll.

“The homeless encampments are a symptom of D.C. not building enough housing,” said Chris Jordan, 37, a resident of Columbia Heights. “We shouldn’t touch [the camps], we should be building more housing.”

The Washington Post poll was conducted from Feb. 2 to 14, with a random sample of 904 adult D.C. residents. Polling was conducted by live interviewers over landlines and cellphones. The overall margin of error for the poll is plus or minus 4 percentage points.

Among White residents, 77 percent support clearings, while 72 percent of Black residents and 76 percent of Hispanic, Asian or others groups also agree.

The poll also finds wide support among D.C.’s wealthiest and poorest. Eighty-one percent of residents making $200,000 or more annually back clearing, as well as 79 percent of residents with annual incomes below $50,000.

A slight divide on support, however, does break along age groups. Older District residents are more supportive of the policy, with 82 percent of those 65 and older backing the mayor’s policy. Among D.C. adults under 30, 68 percent support the policy.

The survey reveals that housing anxiety — particularly over the cost of housing — weighs on residents’ plans for their future in the District. Many do not believe they can afford to stay.

Twenty-six percent of residents say they would move from the city if given the chance, including 7 percent who say they would move to the suburbs and 18 percent who would move outside the D.C. area. The most-cited reason District residents give for wanting to leave is housing affordability — 41 percent. Crime is the No. 2 most-cited reason at 14 percent. Another 9 percent say they would relocate from the District due to family reasons, and school and work are each cited by 4 percent.

The District of Columbia’s population declined by 2.9 percent from 2020 to 2021 according to the Census Bureau, marking a turnaround from two decades of growth.

The group most likely to say they want to move from D.C. is adults under 30, 42 percent of whom say they would move if given the chance. Most say they would leave the area completely. Imani, 21, counts herself among them, citing rent. The mother of a young child, she pays $250 a month to live in a house with two other adults and their children in Ward 4.

“I’ve lived here my whole life but now rent is terrible, way too high,” said Imani, who declined to give her full name for reasons of privacy. “I live with multiple people just to afford a place to live that’s a house.”

Given the opportunity, Imani said, she would move “somewhere in the South. It would be cheaper, of course.”

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

Svenson also said she would leave the District. For her it’s a matter of jobs. “I just don’t feel like there are a lot of job opportunities in the city, and what is here fit really specific profiles,” she said, mentioning the higher-paid positions appear to be in government-related industries. As a veteran of entertainment and fashion, she said she would be more likely “not to move to Maryland or Virginia but New York, Los Angeles or San Francisco, where there are opportunities in my industry.”

The poll shows the desire to move registers differently depending on a resident's income, race and which part of the city they call home.

D.C. residents with lower incomes are more likely to want to relocate, with 39 percent saying they would leave town if they could. Most in that group report they would leave the area. Less than a quarter of other income groups say they want to relocate.

Ward 2 and 3 residents are the most likely to say they would not move from D.C., with 84 percent saying they would stay put. The largest share of residents who would move if given the chance — 35 percent — live in Wards 7 and 8.

Also, 33 percent of Black residents say they would leave the District if given the chance, while 16 percent of White residents express the same sentiment. Residents without a college degree are also twice as likely than those with college degrees to say they would like to move, 36 percent vs. 18 percent.

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